“Champions” stars Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Cheech Marin, Matt Cook, Mike Smith, and Ernie Hudson. Released on March 10, 2023, the film has a basketball coach training a team of differently-abled players.
The film features the solo directorial debut of Bobby Farrelly, who worked with Peter Farrelly on films such as “Kingpin”, “Shallow Hal”, and “The Heartbreak Kid”. It is an English-language remake of the 2018 Spanish film by Javier Fesser and David Marques. It’s clear that Hollywood is dying to provide more sports goodness for its audiences this year. Last month’s “80 for Brady” gave us a heartwarming football comedy involving four women getting starstruck over Tom Brady. This weekend, we’re moving from the football field to the basketball court with a film that sees Woody Harrelson impressing audiences with his charm and coaching skills. The movie also sees Bobby Farrelly going solo this time after his brother Peter gained some success with his recent solo outings, including “Green Book”. I guess two minds think alike when it comes to these sibling directors. So does it score enough points to mark a successful new step in Bobby’s career? Let’s find out.
The story centers on Marcus Marokovich (Harrelson), a temperamental and disgraced minor-league basketball coach. He finds himself in hot water when he gets in legal trouble, which could jeopardize his dream of coaching in the NBA. To revive his career, he must spend 90 days completing a special community service requirement. Marcus is tasked with coaching the local community center’s basketball team, The Friends, consisting of players with intellectual disabilities. The problem is, however, they’re not exactly the best team he has in mind. As they compete for a spot in the Special Olympics, Marcus goes through several scenarios with the team that’ll change his perspective on life.
I originally thought this movie was another original idea from Hollywood amid its ever-lasting list of sequels and remakes. That is until I discovered it was an English remake of a film that came out in Spain five years ago. I suppose that’s one way to make us aware of its overlooked source material. On another note, the trailer for “Champions” immediately reminded me of another movie with a similar concept, “Rebound”, back in 2005 with Martin Lawrence. That film also has a disgraced coach training a group of inexperienced players to be the best. These movies are part of a classic uplifting sports narrative involving someone looking at life from a different perspective, thanks to their teammates. It’s a common storytelling trend that often succeeds in inspiring audiences through its heartfelt appeal and humor despite its formulaic shortcomings. So it should come as no surprise that “Champions” is another enjoyable example of this wholesome trend.
Regarding its storytelling, the film is not going to win any awards for its originality, technical aspects, or any other form of cinematic quality. What it needs to be is a relaxing, straightforward sports comedy-drama with a tolerable narrative that warms people’s hearts. I know it’s been said multiple times for movies like this, but it bears repeating that they’re all we need to make us feel better about our lives, whether the movies are good or bad. Not every film needs to be the next “Citizen Kane”. For the most part, I thought the film accomplished this task with a good enough screenplay and some heartwarming messages to dribble through its noticeable flaws. It’s got plenty of formulaic elements we’ve seen before, no doubt about it. However, what makes them tolerable for me is the appeal of the characters and the respect toward the community of disabled people.
The movie features many likable and genuinely charming characters regarding their personalities and humor, especially Marcus. Marcus is the usual stubborn coach whose only thing in life is basketball. But, of course, his behavior made him rethink his purpose while coaching and befriending the team players, especially Johnny (Kevin Iannucci). While he starts that way, the film makes sure that Marcus has understandable reasons for his actions during his development, making him more sympathetic than irritatingly bone-headed. While the rest of the characters don’t offer a lot of depth, they’re somewhat admirable in maintaining the film’s entertainment values despite its two-hour runtime.
The Farrelly Brothers are known for providing films consisting of slapstick, toilet humor, and supporting roles filled with profane working-class characters. They’re also no strangers to portraying the subject of disability in their projects, which explains Bobby’s involvement with “Champions”. However, they’re also not afraid to provide some heart and drama into their specific movies, including Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book”. “Champions” has Bobby Farrelly attempting to copy his brother’s success with his first solo directorial effort while retaining some elements the brothers are known for. It’s got a couple of gross humor we’d expect from the Farrelly Brothers, but as a whole, Bobby did pretty well in balancing them with real-life comedy, mainly from the cast’s chemistry and dialogue. While Bobby’s direction is far from a slam dunk, it showcases that this Farrelly brother may have what it takes to compete with his sibling.
But, of course, I can’t forget about the film’s representation of people with disabilities, including autism. As someone who’s diagnosed with autism, I thought Bobby and screenwriter Mark Rizzo did a good job honoring the community it’s reflecting without being too emotionally manipulative or even demeaning. Instead, it depicts them as real people while also authentically acknowledging their disabilities. There were also times when the film represented how specific people treat others with disabilities poorly, including Benny’s ignorant boss, which I thought was handled well. It’s nice to see something like “Champions” represent people with disabilities as actual human beings instead of objects for crude humor. It shows that every community worldwide should feel welcomed, especially on screen.
The cast also did very well with their charismatic performances. Woody Harrelson has done plenty of great work throughout his career, and his role as Marcus is no different. Harrelson injected plenty of subtlety and charm into Marcus’ personality and humor, which is enough to distract me from his predictable arc. Kaitlin Olsen and Matt Cook also delivered enjoyable performances as Alex (Johnny’s sister) and Sonny, respectively. I would also acknowledge Ernie Hudson because of his role as Phil Perretti, Marcus’ friend, and because it’s terrific to see the actor in more projects outside the “Ghostbusters” franchise. As for the people portraying The Friends, I thought they did an outstanding job making their characters lovable, with Madison Tevlin’s Consentino and Kevin Iannucci’s Johnny being the highlights. It’s enough to make me appreciate the filmmakers for getting actual people with developmental disabilities to play the characters created for them.
Overall, “Champions” scores enough points in its wholesomeness and story to deliver another heartwarming piece of feel-good sports entertainment. Its formulaic narrative is understandably flawed sometimes, and the concept overstayed its welcome by at least ten minutes. However, all that matters from my perspective is that the execution is decent, and the mixture of comedy and heartfelt drama suits its target audience, including me. Fortunately, the film managed to pull those feats off, resulting in it being an endearing distraction for sports fans and casual moviegoers. From its talented cast to Bobby Farrelly’s handling of its representation and comedy, the movie delivers what it needs to make champions out of its viewers.