‘Champions’ Review: Woody Harrelson in Bobby Farrelly’s Formulaic But Endearing Underdog Sports Comedy
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. An irascible, down-on-his-luck coach is reluctantly put in charge of a ragtag team of misfits who can barely play the game. Although he can hardly disguise his initial disgust, the players’ enthusiastic attitudes and general lovability soften him up until he becomes not just their coach but also their most ardent cheerleader. In the process, he becomes a better person.
That’s the Bad News Bears-style template for the latest cinematic variation on the subject, starring Woody Harrelson in a role he was seemingly born to play. You don’t need to have seen the 2018 Spanish hit comedy Campeoneswhich won multiple Goya Awards including Best Film, to think that its American remake, Champions, feels overly familiar. But that doesn’t make this sure-to-be crowd-pleaser any less winning, especially with the endlessly likable Harrelson at its center.
The Bottom Line
Hackneyed but heartwarming.
In this case, the team in question is composed of young basketball players with intellectual disabilities, whom Marcus (Harrelson) is enlisted to coach when he’s sentenced to 90 days of community service after making the mistake of ramming the back of a police car. A former NBA coach, he’s already had a streak of bad luck, having recently been fired from his assistant coaching position at a Des Moines minor-league basketball team after violently shoving the head coach (Ernie Hudson) during a heated argument over strategy.
Since his only alternative is to spend the 90 days in jail, Marcus accepts the assignment of coaching the “Friends” (in the Spanish film the team was called “Los Amigos,” which gives you an idea of the faithfulness of Mark Rizzo’s screenplay) for the Special Olympics. Needless to say, he’s unimpressed with their non-existent hoop skills, and he’s not exactly sensitive when it comes to their difference. Another complicating factor comes in the form of his unexpected reunion with a player’s older sister Alex (Kaitlin Olson, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Hacks), with whom he recently had a one-night stand that didn’t end well.
It all goes exactly as you’d expect, with the Friends and Marcus slowly warming up to each other as he manages to whip them into something resembling a cohesive team and Marcus and Alex beginning a relationship and discovering that their desire for each other goes beyond just the physical. There are, of course, plenty of misunderstandings and obstacles along the way, which director Bobby Farrelly skillfully mines for laughs.
Yes, that Bobby Farrelly, who hasn’t exactly proven himself a paragon of political correctness in such films co-directed with his brother Peter as Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary and Shallow Hal. There’s certainly plenty of opportunity here for the humor to go south, but Farrelly, making his solo feature directorial debut, strikes exactly the right tone, with the film having plenty of fun at Harrelson’s character’s expense while treating his young charges with dignity. That’s not to say the Friends don’t provide plenty of laughs, especially their newest member Cosentino (a hilarious Madison Tevlin), whose sharp comments frequently put Marcus in his place.
That the film succeeds to the extent that it does is also a testament to Harrelson, the rare actor who can be endearing even when his character is behaving like a boorish jerk. He’s simply impossible to dislike, and here he handles Marcus’ gradual transformation with his usual skill and well-honed comic chops. Matching him note for note is Olson, delivering a vibrantly sexy, funny performance as a woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Playing the team members are ten young 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), some with performing experience and some not, but all coming across like seasoned comic pros. Cheech Marin, who’s entered the avuncular phase of his career, has some fun moments as the recreational facility head who gently guides Marcus through his unaccustomed duties.
By the time Champions reaches its all too predictable yet still satisfying happy ending, you’ll be fully aware of every one of its feel-good machinations. And you probably won’t mind at all.
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