Sunday, May 26, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Champions’ is a Heartwarming Retread

Director: Bobby Farrelly

Writer: Mark Rizzo, Javier Fesser, and David Marqués

Stars: Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olsen, Kevin Iannucci

Synopsis: A former minor-league basketball coach is ordered by the court to manage a team of players with intellectual disabilities. He soon realizes that despite his doubts, together, this team can go further than they ever imagined.

On paper Bobby Farelly’s Champions – adapted from the 2018 Spanish film Campeones – sounds like a winner. It ticks almost every box in the well-worn subgenre of feelgood sports dramedy (if that sounds unfamiliar to you, think Bad News Bears, Mighty Ducks, or any form of narrative where a drunk professional is court ordered to coach a group of outsiders who he then leads to victory). Here we have Woody Harrelson as the likeable coach, a capable love interest in Kaitlin Olsen, a group of really funny, endearing kids, a director who has plenty of experience in this arena, and a blueprint taken from a successful foreign language film. What could go wrong?

Perhaps the problem with Champions is that we’ve seen this all before, and done much better. If it ticks all those boxes, then it ticks them a little too easily. You feel like you can almost see the script in the movie; each plot beat is so staggeringly obvious, each development so mind-numbingly mundane. In an overcrowded field, Champions hardly stands out. While it is a perfectly serviceable middle-of-the-road effort, it’s hard not to feel like Farrelly’s talents might have been better focused elsewhere.

Marcus Markovich (Harrelson) is an assistant basketball coach trying to make his way to the NBA. He’s coaching a J League team in Des Moines, Iowa, hoping to build a reputation that will land him somewhere better. The problem is that his head coach isn’t listening to his suggestions for plays because Marcus focuses only on the stats and not on the players themselves. This leads to an altercation with his head coach which causes Marcus to be fired from the team. 

Furious about this development, Marcus goes out, gets drunk, and accidentally crashes his car into a police cruiser. Cut to a typical courtroom scene where a judge sentences a gruffly reluctant Marcus to 90 days community service as the coach for a team of intellectually challenged kids called The Friends. 

Marcus doesn’t know the first thing about intellectual disability, as evidenced by his instant reference to the R word. Nevertheless, he assumes his role and begins to teach these kids the fundamentals of basketball. There’s Johnny (Kevin Iannucci) who never showers and has Down’s Syndrome (or as he puts it, he’s a “homie with an extra chromie”), Showtime (Bradley Edens) who insists on taking 3 pointers with his back turned to the hoop, Craig (Matthew Von Der Ahe) who likes to remind everyone of his sexual prowess, and Cosentino (Madison Tevlin) who won’t hesitate to tell you what she thinks of you and is the de-facto leader of the team. They are a tight-knit group, each very funny and with their own unique personalities that are given some time to develop. 

Johnny’s sister Alex (Kaitlin Olsen) also plays a part, transporting the kids to away games in the RV she uses to stage Shakespeare plays to high school kids for a living. It’s in these moments she begins to build a friendship with Marcus that may or may not lead to something mo-oh, of course it leads to something more, who are we kidding?

As Marcus and Alex’s relationship blossoms, so too does the team’s performance on the court, and Marcus begins to learn something about treating each person as an individual and appreciating their differences.

That, in a nutshell, is Champions. It’s true that it’s hard to dislike a movie whose premise is so big-hearted, whose message is so achingly positive and motivational. It’s also hard to dislike a movie where the kids themselves are so funny and likeable. Ultimately, though, there’s a phoned-in aspect to Champions which it can’t seem to hide. As though even the movie itself realizes its whole existence is a worn-out cliché. 

Harrelson, in particular, seems to have checked out, rarely ever unveiling that puppy dog charisma he’s so well known for. Marcus doesn’t really have an emotional arc because from the beginning he’s accepting of these kids and so there is very little bad behavior that needs to be challenged. Even the DUI which lands him here seems to be a one-off event, as there’s never any evidence of alcohol problems in the first place. There’s some clumsy metaphor about needing to understand the personal lives of his players if he wants to be a better coach, but it’s tacked on and feels unearned when the moments do come. These movies usually rely on the emotional journey of their protagonist to convince the audience to invest, but here there is no journey for Marcus.

Olsen is better as Alex. She easily channels her shtick as Dee from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, except more palatable for a mainstream audience. Alex is bitter about the way life has gone for her, her dreams of acting stardom all but vanished as she approaches middle age, and clings perhaps a little too closely to her younger brother as a way of mining some purpose for her life. If there is any meaningful emotional arc through Champions, it’s hers as she learns to let go of her little brother and allow him to live his life.

The rest of the cast – Ernie Hudson as the head coach who provides some wise counsel for Marcus; Cheech Marin as the caretaker of The Friends; Matt Cook as Marcus’ assistant coach who just wants his approval – never get much in the way of character development and so warrant only a passing acknowledgement here. They are, again, perfectly serviceable but never amount to anything more.

Champions is a movie that knows full well what it is. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel or do anything at all different from its predecessors. Its secret weapon lies within its kid actors, who do so well at imbuing their characters with funny, endearing personalities. You feel this movie is for them, and that’s no bad thing. Fans of the genre will probably enjoy this, but if you’re looking for something new, you’d be better off looking elsewhere.

Grade – D


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