Review: Champions Gives Woody Harrelson (and Filmmaker Bobby Farrelly) a Predictable, if Well-Acted Redemption Story
From Bobby Farrelly (Kingpin, There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber), the co-filmmaker of massive comedies that weren’t always sensitive to the developmentally disabled, the new film Champions feels like a bit of a make-good effort toward the intellectually disabled community, with mixed results. Written by Mark Rizzo and based on the Spanish film Campeones, the movie stars Woody Harrelson as Marcus, a minor-league basketball assistant coach (who knew there was such a thing?) who gets into an on-court scuffle with the head coach (Ernie Hudson), gets fired from the team, gets involved in a DUI situation while on the road in Dubuque, Iowa, and is court-ordered to coach a team of players with intellectual disabilities in that town.
Since this is meant to be a redemption story, naturally Marcus starts out being against the idea of coaching this team or getting to know the players beyond what their roles are on the court. He even has to force himself not to use the R-word from time to time, but of course, by the end of the film, he’s knocking out anyone who does, because he’s reformed to the core in just 90 days. Some of the film’s humor comes from watching Harrelson barrel through life and coaching without much thought about the consequences, but the team teaches him that getting to learn each of their unique styles of playing basketball actually makes him a better coach, and he can use their strengths and weaknesses to the team’s advantage.
One of the players happens to have a plucky older sister named Alex (Kaitlin Olson), who by coincidence had a one-night stand with Marcus just after his last professional game. The first scene between them is exceptionally funny as she tries to leave his room without much fuss, and he tries to be a good guy about hustling her out the door politely. By the end, they are trading masterful insults. But as they get to know one another as her brother’s coach, they actually start to fall for each other, something neither of them thought they wanted or needed.
In a fairly predictable turn, the larger basketball world takes notice of how Marcus and his team are starting to win games, and the feel-good story of Marcus’s redemption gets him the attention of NBA teams, one of which wants to hire him to give the team a feel-good story that takes attention off some recent scandals. So desperate to coach in the NBA, Marcus is thrilled with the chance to move on, but his team is brokenhearted and so is Alex, something that Marcus somehow didn’t anticipate, forcing him to consider his options for perhaps one of the first times in his life.
We do get to know the members of the team—some more than others—and the actors playing them are genuinely funny and charming, and they can play basketball better than most. Director Farrelly goes to great lengths to make it clear that he’s not making fun of any of them, but I think the film’s problem is that it’s swinging too hard in the other direction. Champions has genuine laughs, but usually they come at Marcus’s expense, which seems appropriate. It seems ironic that Marcus is accused by some of exploiting the team for the purposes of getting an NBA gig, when it’s fairly clear that Farrelly is doing the same thing to make us forget his past transgressions against this community. That being said, Harrelson isn’t performing at a reduced capacity; he’s as funny and self-deprecating as ever, and the scenes between him and Olson are the best in the movie.
Champions doesn’t play out exactly how you think it will (or parts of it don’t), and when it was over, I begrudgingly realized that the performances by the team members and the leads got me through the rough patches. As a sports movie, it’s fairly standard-issue stuff; as a showcase for something unexpected and even uplifting at times, it works much better. Take that for what it’s worth.
The film is now playing in theaters.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!