2023, PG-13, 124 min. Directed by Bobby Farrelly. Starring Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Cheech Marin, Matt Cook, Ernie Hudson, Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci.
REVIEWED By Trace Sauveur, Fri., March 10, 2023
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly perturbed by the general conceit of Champions. The Bobby half of the Farrelly brothers — a filmmaking duo generally known for their spirited anarchy, gross-out gags, and often dated approach to humor — doing a comedy about a down-and-out hothead basketball coach training a team made up of disabled players by court order? Fire up the discourse cannon.
The truth of Champions, though, is that it’s a remake of Javier Fesser’s 2018 Spanish film of the same name, which approached the material with an easygoing and uplifting spirit. Farrelly smartly aims to emulate that inspirational, sincere found-family approach, though he still manages to work in farts, a repellent injury, and projectile vomit. Some habits are hard to break.
The real crime of the film is that it’s so low-impact it’s bound to hardly register on anybody’s radar enough to stimulate a conversation in any direction. This is an absurdly familiar story and there’s little it does to stand out. Certainly, it’s a great opportunity for the representation of actors with disabilities and the community, but the movie itself is stilted and trite, hitting all the prerequisites for the genre in workaday fashion.
That said, though I’m usually suspect of stories about characters experiencing personal growth by learning underrepresented communities like people with Down syndrome are real, this does generally feel well-intentioned and has fleeting moments of sweetness. Ejected ex-NBA coach Marcus (Harrelson) is not some evil bigot, just an ignorant guy sequestered within his own bubble who has never been exposed to anyone outside his immediate situation. His reluctance to coach the team comes more from resentment from being fired from his old job for getting aggressive with head coach Phil (Hudson).
Of course, his relationship with the team starts out a bit rocky and uncomfortable but it doesn’t take long at all before Marcus warms up to his new players. Harrelson puts on his typical stubborn hard-ass exterior as a shield but softens up as he grows to care about the team, all of whom have a good enough rapport with each other and Harrelson. Some players are more fleshed out than others, namely Johnny (Iannucci), whose sister Alex (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Olson) forges a charming-enough relationship with Marcus after the couple have an awkward Tinder hookup.
Much of the comedy comes from the team's antics, and Champions toes a very fine line between the characters being funny on their own terms and the movie gawking at mentally disabled people who don’t play basketball quite right. I don’t think it ever crosses over into being distasteful but it was in the back of my mind in the early goings. Eventually, things settle into an okay flow of your regular sports dramedy with training montages and games set to a soundtrack consisting of the likes of “Tubthumping,” “Hey Ya!” and “A-Punk.” It’s almost offensively agreeable, with the occasional expletive thrown out which makes this feel like a kid could watch it and feel like they’re getting away with something. But it’s also pretty flat more often than not, which makes the excessive hour runtime fairly wearisome. The only movie that rivals how long this spends wrapping up loose ends after the climax may be Return of the King.
Maybe it’s a net positive that the film exists given its unimpeachable thesis and positive representation, with a syrupy go-get-'em attitude so benevolent as to render the film immune to any real animosity. Or maybe it’s a dilution of the reality of people with disabilities to have a film so undemanding in its emotional caliber as to infantilize its subjects. Or maybe it’s somewhere smack dab in the middle, curious in its deficiencies in regards to story and character but so unremarkable that it’s difficult to care one way or the other.