A film review by Craig J. Koban June 16, 2023

CHAMPIONS jj
 

2023, PG-13, 124 mins.

Woody Harrelson as Marcus  /  Kaitlin Olson as Alex  /  Cheech Marin as Julio  /  Matt Cook as Sonny  /  Ernie Hudson as Coach Phil Peretti  /  Madison Tevlin as Cosentino  /  Joshua Felder as Darius  /  Kevin Iannucci as Johnny  /  Ashton Gunning as Cody  /  Matthew Von Der Ahe as Craig  /  James Day Keith as Benny  /  Alex Hintz as Arthur  /  Casey Metcalfe as Marlon  /  Bradley Edens as Showtime  /  Alicia Johnston as Coach Maya  /  Tom Sinclair as Blair  /  Mike Smith as Attorney McGurk

Directed by Bobby Farrelly  /  Written by Mark Rizzo (based on the Spanish film CAMPEONES) 

I'll defend the Farrelly Brothers with respect to the fact that they have arguably done more for inclusiveness on their movie sets and productions for people with disabilities than anyone else in Hollywood.     

Ever since 1996's uproarious KINGPIN (still their greatest comedy), this sibling filmmaking duo have gone out of their way to champion people with disabilities and putting them in their films in various forms in front of and behind the camera.  Everything from actors with spina bifida to wheelchair-bound performers to those with developmental and/or intellectual disabilities have shown up in bit roles, extras, and even supporting characters.   And, for the most part, they're presented as frankly and normally as anyone else in their films, which is something to be commended.  Since the mid-1990s, Peter and Bobby Farrelly have insisted on using PWD in all of their films in some capacity, which is something you just don't see in mainstream Hollywood films of any genre.   

This preamble brings me to CHAMPIONS, which represents Bobby Farrelly's first feature film in the director's chair minus his brother Peter, the latter of whom has carved out a niche for himself, scoring Oscar gold for helming THE GREEN BOOK and, most recently, the undervalued THE GREATEST BEER RUN EVER.  Bobby has opted to maintain the comedic roots that gave him and his brother a career with CHAMPIONS, which just so happens to be a remake of 2018 Spanish film of the same name.  The film also reunites Farrelly with his old KINGPIN star in Woody Harrelson, who appears here as a washed up former pro-basketball coach that is court ordered to serve community service as a new coach for a team comprised completely of...disabled people.

To say that CHAMPIONS walks a very slippery slope is an understatement, and I can easily see why lay filmgoers - mostly familiar with the lewd and crude extremes of Farrelly's filmography - may think that this premise is steeped in pure sensationalism.  Actually, the best thing going for CHAMPIONS and its beyond obvious BAD NEWS BROWNS-esque storytelling is the relationship dynamics between Harrelson's character and the players themselves, all played by a crew of intellectually disabled actors.  Giving them an opportunity to shine alongside their leading man - and oftentimes upstaging him - gives the film a pulse of interest.  What ultimately holds down CHAMPIONS, though, is that it's too heavily reliant on sports genre troupes and is too ridiculously long for its own good.  That's a shame, because there's a good movie buried deep inside here that's nearly worthy of a solid recommendation.   

 

 

I mentioned BAD NEWS BEARS as an influence here, seeing as both films involve a down-of-his-luck coach that has to oversee a group of misfit players and make them - ahem! - champions.  There's also a spoonful of THE MIGHTY DUCKS thrown in for good measure too.  In that 1992 sports film Emilio Estevez played a lawyer that - after a drunk driving accident - is forced to coach a pee-wee hockey team.  In a thoroughly similar fashion, Harrelson plays Marcus, a minor league basketball coach who is sentenced to community service after - yup! - a drunk driving offence and, in turn, is forced to head up a basketball team made up of disabled people.  In the opening scenes of CHAMPIONS, we see Marcus' growing frustration with being saddled with a low-stakes and low-respect job as an assistant coach for a junior B-ball team.  Deeply disheartened that he has next to no chance of being noticed by the NBA - and that his head coach, Phil (Ernie Hudson) never takes his advice on the court - Marcus hits rock bottom and - out of pure frustration mixed with stupidity - gets into a physical altercation with Phil, leading to his suspension and his subsequent drowning of his sorrows in booze.  That, as already mentioned, leads to a DUI arrest, court appearance, and his sentencing.     

Predictably, the ignoramus that is Marcus doesn't know precisely how to take the news of his community service punishment, and certainly doesn't know the first thing about coaching disabled players, let alone what to call them.  "If I can't call them the R-word, what do I call them?" he asks in court, to which the judge replies "Their names!"

Begrudgingly, Marcus journeys out to a Des Moines, Iowa community center to meet his team of intellectually disabled adults (dubbed "The Friends") and Julio (Cheech Marin), who runs the center in question.  The Friends are all a quirky, but loveable bunch, like the ironically named Showtime (Bradley Edens), who flat-out refuses to shoot the ball any other way but behind his back (tough in a clutch game situation) and Marlon (a wonderful Casey Metcalfe), who's a cornucopia of facts being spewed out at the wrong moment.  While trying to acclimate to his new coaching assignment, Marcus gets intimate with Alex (Kaitlin Olsen), who once had a one-night stand with Marcus via a Tinder hook-up, but later discovers that he has now become a coach of The Friends and, in turn, her disabled brother, Johnny (Kevin Iannucci).  Getting past the awkwardness of this proves tough for Marcus early on, especially because of how he idiotically can't comprehend how she turned out "normal", but her brother has Down Syndrome.  He ignorantly asks Alex how Johnny "caught" his disability, to which she rightfully slams him back with the fact that no one can "catch" DS...you're born with it.  Despite his pigheadedness, Alex decides to maintain ties with Marcus and help ease him into his new coaching duties, and this man will need all the help he can get.   

On a positive, Harrelson and Olsen are pretty thanklessly good in their respective roles, with the latter IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA star scoring most of the film's best laughs in response to Marcus' frequent stupidity.  She decides to be his sex buddy in spite of this, but mostly because of the slim pickings of men around that want to date a forty-something woman and one with a disabled brother that requires constant care.  She's not just a one-note love interest, but rather a spirited and independent-minded soul that shows resolve in dealing with Marcus's blunders.  She also shows tender compassion and patience in dealing with Johnny and his friends (her unforced chemistry with Iannucci is the heart of the film, but her wickedly sly deadpan manner with Marcus is consistently funny).  But Harrelson is good too, playing his arrested development-riddled man-child.  It's a testament to the actor's innate likeability that he can make this borderline insensitive-minded cretin somehow endearing.  It's also a surprisingly understated turn for Harrelson too, which I think is the right register for this film and role.  Some of the better scenes in CHAMPIONS shows Marcus trying to find some way to break through to his new team in practice sessions, which involves employing a variety of unorthodox methods.  It's also tough because these players have little faith in their skills.  

Of course, taking center stage are The Friends as well, all played very well by ten disabled actors (Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci, Ashton Gunning, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tome Sinclair, James Day Keith, Alex Hintz, Casey Metcalfe, Bradley Edens, and Tevlin), with some of them having actual acting experience, whereas the others come from Special Olympic backgrounds.  What's so good here is that they are not - as some may have feared going in - used for crude punchlines or propped up as even cruder stereotypes.  The Friends here come off as believable characters with relatable vulnerabilities that stem well beyond their disabilities.  As far as proper representation of the disabled community, CHAMPIONS is on surprisingly decent ground,  which probably stems from Farrelly's real life friendships (professional and personal) with the PWD community and his steadfast willingness to include and make them feel welcome in his past films.  To be absolutely fair with CHAMPIONS, it neither dips its toes in offensive waters, nor does it try to be falsely sentimental or sanctimoniously preachy when it comes to these characters.  There are still moments of bawdy humor to be had here, and the film certainly does have its share of laugh-out-loud moments, but there's an undercurrent of sincerity to the production that should do well to alleviate audience concerns about its potentially touching subject matter.     

I guess that the main problem that I had with CHAMPIONS is that there's very little here that goes against the grain of similar past sports pictures that we've seen before.  You know the type: An aging, grumpy coach that feels that life has dealt him a raw deal and is forced to mentor an eclectic and athletically uninspired group of outcasts and - after initially being taken aback by the prospects of such an impossible task - has his heart warmed and becomes a better man through his experiencing befriending these players and making them realize their own self-worth.  There're simply no moulds broken here, outside of having the players be disabled.  Again, Farrelly and company treat these characters with respect and allow them to become welcoming presences in their film, but the overall story built around them leaves no stale and overused formula stone unturned.  Farrelly tries to subvert expectations with the "big proverbial game" near the end with a fake out, but it somehow doesn't work as well as it should have.  And at 124 unnecessary minutes, CHAMPIONS is in desperate need of a tighter edit.   

Parts of me really liked this film.  It's pleasant minded and entertaining in its own right, but too predictably by the numbers that it overwhelms and distracts from what does work so well.  I shudder to think of how CHAMPIONS might have ended up in the wrong hands and with the worst kind of insensitive-minded handling of its premise, but this final product is far from being offensive in the slightest.  Farrelly deserves credit for giving his disabled actors a chance to inhabit bona fide characters and be, in turn, given as much attention and screen time as their able-bodied co-stars.  This is what makes CHAMPIONS an involving and good-natured watch that's hard to hate.  However, it's just ultimately telling that this film will probably have little staying power with me the longer I separate myself from it.  It has a fresh perspective and a sense of inclusiveness with his characters, yes, but the story machinations here follow the genre playbook too rigidly.

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