The underdogs in Champions deserve better storytelling
The Farrelly Brothers represent somewhat of a paradox in Hollywood. Long known for outrageous – and, to some, offensive – comedies like Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, and Shallow Hal, among others, they also have a history of including people with intellectual and other disabilities in their films. This inclusive mindset even earned them a notable award in 2020.
One half of the brothers, Bobby Farrelly, is taking things more than few steps further with his newest film, Champions. Marcus (Woody Harrelson), a minor league basketball coach in Des Moines, Iowa, has a way of letting his ego get in the way of his career. After being fired from yet another job, he drowns his sorrows at a local bar and winds up getting arrested for driving under the influence after he crashes into a police car.
The judge in his case offers him a choice: Go to prison or commit to 90 days of public service by coaching a team full of players with intellectual disabilities. Marcus reluctantly takes the job. Although he initially finds it difficult to get the players to use the skills he’s trying to teach them, he’s able to make an impact with persistence and the help of Alex (Kaitlin Olson), the sister one of the team’s better players, Johnny (Kevin Iannucci).
Based on the 2018 Spanish film Campeones and written by Mark Rizzo, the story follows a fairly typical sport movie arc, with the ragtag group of players coming together to succeed against the odds, and their coach finding a form of redemption in the process. It’s standard fare that’s so generic that most viewers will be able to predict almost everything that happens well before it actually takes place.
The film is a tough one to critique without coming across as insensitive. Few of the actors with intellectual disabilities have much previous acting experience, so their performances should be graded on a big curve. On the whole, they are a delightful presence in the film and, on occasion, upstage the professional actors, especially Cosentino (Madison Tevlin).
That said, it’s difficult to get past just how mediocre the film is overall. This has nothing to do with the players on the team; instead, it’s the C-level writing and ham-handed directing that brings the movie down. Almost every conversation between the professional actors is awkward and devoid of any feeling or meaning. It’s almost like the filmmakers are tiptoeing around in an effort not to offend anybody, and in the process they wind up making something bland and boring.
Harrelson, who previously starred in the Farrelly Brothers’ 1996 film Kingpin, is forgettable in this role. He doesn’t elevate the material in the slightest and sometimes seems to just be going through the paces. Olson at least adds a little flair to her role, but she’s not given much to do. The most memorable novice actors are Tevlin, Iannucci, and Bradley Edens, the latter of which is given a funny running joke that plays a big part in the film’s ending.
In the end, Champions is a disservice to the people with intellectual disabilities it seeks to showcase. It’s easy to forgive the lack of polish in their performances, but it’s next-to-impossible to look past the absence of anything interesting or entertaining from everyone surrounding them.
Champions opens in theaters on March 10.