by Matt Weiner
A team of ragtag misfits has to come together to win the big game, but not before they teach their washed up coach a thing or two about the power of teamwork in the process.
Yes, Champions is a remake of an older film, but it’s somehow not The Bad News Bears. In this case, it’s the 2018 Spanish hit Campeones. The kids are just as foul-mouthed, but this time the twist is that disgraced professional coach Marcus Markovich (Woody Harrelson, delivering a solid replacement-level version of classic Prickly Harrelson) has to work with a rec basketball team of intellectual disabled players as his court-ordered community service.
With a regional championship game looming in Canada for the Special Olympics, Marcus needs to juggle getting his own life and career back on track, dating new love interest Alex (Kaitlin Olson) and showing up for his team. The outcome of the game might be up in the air, but you can rest easy knowing that lessons are learned, love is found and use of the R-word is kept to a minimum and only to show personal growth. Neat.
While they might deserve a less stale vehicle to show off their skills, the performances from the actors with disabilities all rise above the cliched story (especially foul-mouthed Cosentino, played by Madison Tevlin, and Kevin Iannucci as Johnny, who gets caught in the middle of Marcus and Alex’s not-so-casual fling).
The team’s interactions with Marcus and one another make for the few genuinely earned emotions in a story that otherwise seems to exist to remind viewers in 2023 that people with intellectual disabilities also deserve to be treated with respect.
Olson is another acting standout. Her sharp comic timing wasn’t in doubt thanks to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but it’s surprising to see how much she shines in this kind of role. That is, surprising in the sense that she’s such a natural, refreshing fit that it seems impossible she hasn’t led more romantic comedies.
With Bobby Farrelly as director, it’s hard not to compare Champions to elements of past Farrelly Brothers work. We’re a long way from There’s Something About Mary – and let’s not speak of the inexorable Shallow Hal – but this film exists firmly and bizarrely in an era not so removed from that time. (A heartwarming sports comedy about Special Olympics athletes isn’t even new ground for the Farrellys – 2005’s The Ringer mixes up the beats but its basic dignity message about people with disabilities is the same.)
That Champions is appearing now feels less an indictment of Hollywood feet-dragging than a not-so-gentle suggestion that perhaps we’ve moved beyond needing generic sports movies with entry-level calls for respect to move the needle for any holdouts.
Champions does itself no favors by substituting coarseness for meanness. That’s preferable to what this movie might have looked like a few decades ago, but it manages to neuter the comic touch of Farrelly and writer Mark Rizzo while dulling any interesting edges at the same time. (For example, an ongoing plot about a manipulative employer taking advantage of discount labor gets reduced to deus ex machina to set up the final game.) It’s an odd twist that Peter Farrelly’s recent solo effort Green Book won the Academy Award for Best Picture. And yet Bobby’s Champions might be the film that traffics in fewer broad stereotypes. That’s a win worth celebrating on its own. Just don’t expect the taste of victory to linger longer than the closing credits.