Directed by: Bobby Farrelly
Distributed by: Focus Features
Written by Patrick Hao
What do you say about a movie that follows the structure of every inspirational sports movie comedy ever made? Bobby Farrelly’s “Champions” is a straight-down-the-middle sports comedy where instead of the ragamuffin in a film like “The Bad News Bears” or the blue-collar workers of “Slap Shot,” the basketball team is made up of players with intellectual disabilities. The setup is simple. Woody Harrelson is Marcus, a disgruntled assistant minor league basketball coach in Iowa. He was poised for greatness when circumstances prevented him from ever reaching the NBA. After an argument with his head coach (Ernie Hudson), Marcus drinks his sorrows away leading him to a DUI and sentenced to serve 90 days of community service, which so happens to be coaching The Friends, a team of intellectually disabled players at a local community center. Why the judge would entrust someone with alcohol and anger issues to coach this team is never addressed.
This is the setup for a thousand of these types of movies and plays out in similar ways. At first, Marcus is incredulous at this task. He sees himself as above it and is simmering with anger. Then over the course of the film, he learns to really trust his players. Plus he has the hots for one of his player’s sister, Alex (Kaitlin Olson). This is Bobby Farrelly’s first feature away from his brother Peter, who himself had gone on to success with “The Green Book” and less success with “The Greatest Beer Run Ever.” As a director duo, they always had a maudlin gooey sentimentality beneath the raunchy gross-out humor. In a way, they have always been interested in what they perceive as the outcasts of society.
As solo directors, it is intriguing that they both seemingly abandon any sense of raunchiness, and instead have leaned towards straight sentimentality. Bobby Farrelly’s film is an earnest attempt to give his intellectually disabled characters an empathetic portrayal. He takes time to give each character shine and has characters like Alex or the community center manager Julio (Cheech Marin) lecture Marcus on Down Syndrome or each character’s personal life.
The only problem with this earnest attempt is that the point of view of the film is still Marcus’s. This is about his arc and his ability to grow. We are not cheering for The Friends per se, we are cheering for Marcus. Any attempt at an arc with the players, from a character being afraid of water or a character learning to forgive the situation that caused his disability, is done for the purpose of progressing Marcus’s arc. It’s very much how these people will serve me.
That is not to say that this movie is exploitative. Just misguided like Peter Farrelly’s “The Green Book” was. It is a well-meaning movie made to make people feel better about themselves for being open-minded. Woody Harrelson is a movie star with good chemistry with anyone you put him with, especially someone as dynamic as Kaitlin Olson. But, this is meant to be a movie that takes up time and quickly dissipates. As that movie, “Champions” is pleasantly rote, which to its credit being pleasantly rote is a lot harder than it looks.