Champions Synopsis: A former minor-league basketball coach (Woody Harrelson) receives a court order to manage a team of players with intellectual disabilities. Despite his doubts, he soon realizes that together they can go further than they ever imagined. A remake of the 2018 Spanish film Camepons.
Disgraced coach Marcus Markovich deploys his professional basketball insights in coaching a Special Olympics roster in the feel-good sports comedy Champions.
The release of Champions piqued my interest as a welcomed piece of representation for the intellectually disabled community. I spent my high school senior year volunteering for Special Olympics teams and enjoyed my experiences immensely. There are many toxic misconceptions surrounding people living with intellectual disabilities, with society still placing unjust labels and not giving people a chance to showcase their overlooked capabilities – whether it’s via the workforce or the world at large.
In my experience, the athletes I worked with always represented themselves as enthusiastic and considerate individuals looking for acceptance in an unnecessarily hostile society. I cannot express enough gratitude for that chapter of my life. The athletes embraced me with open hearts, ingraining me in their razzing rituals and truly accepting me as a part of their tight-knit family.
Films focused on the intellectually disabled are frankly few and far between. For every well-executed production (The Ringer and Peanut Butter Falcon were empowering in their authentic portrayals), Hollywood features a long list of duds that are incredibly maudlin and contrived in their construction (Radio and I Am Sam are two infamous examples).
With Champions, director Bobby Farrelly and screenwriter Mark Rizzo take one step forward and two steps back. Noble intentions and glimmers of well-formulated ideas are everpresent in this sports comedy, but the film never trusts itself or its audience enough to honor its premise.
Champions gravitates too closely to well-traveled formula. Marcus is your typical sports movie lead – a jaded misanthrope who can’t help getting in his own way. At first glance, he is far from likable, reluctantly taking on his community service sentence and rarely giving his new roster of players the time of day. But, along the way, Marcus grows to accept his team, dubbed the Friends, and the ensemble forms a friendly rapport as they chase the Special Olympics championship.
Marcus’s character is intended as the point guard that drives Champions’ plot forward. Instead, he is the black hole that encumbers the film at every turn. There is an unintended level of condescension in Rizzo’s screenwriting approach, framing Marcus’s monumental change of heart as a journey that can only occur through the help of his likable new players. Unfortunately, this choice relegates the central subjects of Champions as background players stuck in another character’s trite coming-of-age story.
It’s easy to envision a version of Champions that would work far better if it focused on its ensemble cast. Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci, Ashton Gunning, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, James Day Keith, Alex Hintz, Casey Metcalfe, Bradley Edens, and scene-stealer Madison Tevlin are infectiously charismatic as members of the Friends roster. Each actor defines a memorable presence onscreen despite the screenplay’s shortcomings.
To Rizzo’s credit, he occasionally awards these characters interesting wrinkles worth exploring, whether it’s Felder’s character Darius wrestling with a tragic accident that derailed his verging basketball career or Keith’s role as a line cook dealing with workplace harassment due to his disability. While there is potential on the page, Rizzo seems ill-equipped to explore these subplots with any more substance than a mundane TV sitcom. His efforts severely lack the nuance and understanding to award these characters’ necessary dimensions outside of one or two defining personality quirks. Other concepts, such as the film’s reckoning with the mistreatment of intellectually disabled persons and Marcus’s potential exploitation of the team to advance his career, are worthwhile on paper yet ultimately go nowhere of interest.
As a breezy comedy, Champions works in spurts. The deft comedic timing of the ensemble cast pairs well with Woody Harrelson’s sardonic performance as Marcus. For all of the role’s warts, Harrelson occasionally elevates the part through his rugged appeals. It’s Always Sunny in Philidelphia star Kate Olsen is also a gem as Marcus’ sharp-witted love interest. When the film shies away from self-congratulatory pandering, there is a sincere heart that occasionally stirs some genuine sentiments.
It’s just a shame Champions consistently gets in its own way. Farrelly, who shepherded several stalwart 90s comedies like There’s Something About Marry and Dumb and Dumber with his brother Peter, provides a steadying yet unenthusiastic presence behind the camera. His cloying presence drowns out plot beats in a syrupy saccharine manner, never allowing emotions to bubble under the needless confections of over-eager score inclusions and melodramatic speeches. The overreliance upon artificial crowd-pleaser tropes prevents Farley’s film from ever developing an authentic voice.
Champions scores in some areas and airballs in others. Despite my admiration for what the film vies to achieve, its ambitions ultimately culminate in a lackadaisical and paper-thin sports narrative.
Champions is now playing in theaters.
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