Movie Review: Strong cast, familiar tropes give ‘Champions’ winning formula
March 8, 2023 Updated Thu., March 9, 2023 at 3:15 p.m.
From left, Kevin Iannucci as Johnny, Kaitlin Olson as Alex, James Day Keith as Benny and Woody Harrelson as Marcus in director Bobby Farrelly’s “Champions.” (Focus Features)
The Farrelly brothers – Peter and Bobby – reigned supreme over comedies of questionable taste in the 1990s and 2000s (“Dumb and Dumber,” “There’s Something About Mary,” “Shallow Hal,” “Stuck on You”), but while brother Peter has gone on to the industry’s highest success, picking up best original screenplay and best picture Oscars for his film “Green Book,” Bobby hasn’t directed a film in awhile. He makes his comeback with his “Kingpin” star Woody Harrelson in the sports comedy “Champions,” an English-language remake of the 2018 Spanish smash hit, the Goya Award-winning, “Campeones.”
Given the Farrelly track record of dabbling in more outre or offensive comedy, one might be bracing for what “Champions” may potentially deliver, given that it follows a minor league basketball coach, Marcus (Harrelson) who is sentenced to community service after a drunk driving accident, which is how he finds himself coaching a team of intellectually disabled adults at a local community center in Des Moines, Iowa. But after an initial fake-out, Farrelly, Harrelson and writer Mark Rizzo deftly thread the needle on “Champions,” which is for the most part warmly amusing, without diving too far into the realm of the maudlin or treacly; side-stepping anything insensitive while still enjoying some bawdy humor.
You might also be thinking, “isn’t this ‘The Mighty Ducks’?” – the 1992 kids sports comedy about an attorney (Emilio Estevez) who gets sentenced to community service after a drunken driving accident and has to coach a Minneapolis pee-wee hockey team – and yes, it’s basically the same story. The grumpy coach who has a hard time connecting with people finds himself opening up with his unlikely charges, and learning to love the game again, because of the players, not in spite of them. The story does not deviate from the traditional sports movie formula we know so well.
What helps enliven “Champions” is what enlivens Coach Marcus himself – the team, called the Friends, which is cast entirely of actors with similar disabilities to their characters. Some are experienced actors, some were cast from their experience as Special Olympics athletes, and others make their screen debut in the film. One of the standouts, Kevin Iannucci, plays Johnny, whose older sister, Alex (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” star Kaitlin Olson) becomes Marcus’ love interest. The pair grow from Tinder one-night stand, to reluctant allies, to friends with benefits when Marcus takes over the team, but Alex’s spiky, self-protective humor, and Marcus’ ambition to flee Iowa for an NBA job throws up the appropriate hurdles to their romance.
The plot also cribs heavily from traditional romance tropes, with Marcus as a stern striver finding himself charmed (and thawed) by the quirky residents of a small town, a surprisingly steamy attraction, and of course, the players he manages to coach to a Special Olympics regional championship. It’s not innovative storytelling, but it is effective – there’s a reason why these tropes exist.
“Champions” doesn’t break any molds, narratively or aesthetically, and it’s too long, but what sets it apart is the cast of the Friends, who offer warm and nuanced performances, and excellent representation for the disabled community, which has either been largely ignored on film, or relegated to inappropriate punchlines or condescending stereotypes. Farrelly and Rizzo, working with the original material of “Campeones,” and the actors offer a depiction of these characters and their lives as full with responsibilities, relationships and joy. When Coach Marcus comes along, he’s just the icing on the cake. They were champs before he showed up, and the film is his journey to realizing that.
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