Sports comedy 'Champions' follows formula to the letter, but it’s an absolute delight
One thing I’ve always admired about the films of Peter and Bobby Farrelly is the way they like filling out the smaller roles with disabled actors. Disabilities are never the purpose of the scenes, nor do they define the characters. They’re just facts of everyday life. As with David Lynch’s fondness for focusing on the elderly and infirm, these inclusions feel like a more accurate depiction of how the world around us really looks. The great critic Wesley Morris once said that minorities are only in movies because “someone put them there.” Of course, the only reason anybody is in a movie is because someone put them there. It’s our job as the audience to ask why.
Bobby Farrelly’s “Champions” probably should have been dreadful. A remake of the 2018 comedy “Campeones,” which won Spain’s Goya Award for Best Picture, it stars Woody Harrelson as a recently fired NBA minor league assistant coach who gets a DUI in Des Moines and is sentenced to 90 days of community service. The judge sends him to a ramshackle rec center where he’s placed in charge of the Friends, a basketball team of adults with intellectual disabilities who have dreams of competing in the Special Olympics. Presided over by Cheech Marin’s seen-it-all civil servant, it’s a program so underfunded that the only way the players can get to away games is by taking the city bus. At first, the brusque, all-business Harrelson is exasperated by his inept players until… guess what? If you’ve ever seen a movie before, you know exactly where this is going.
But I’ll be damned if it isn’t a pleasant ride getting there. “Champions” is a sweet film, one that follows formula to the letter but manages to charm you anyway because it knows enough not to push too hard. This is Bobby’s first solo outing behind the camera — as with the Coens and the Wachowskis, it seems all our sibling acts are going their separate ways. But whereas big brother Peter recently won two Oscars for solving racism with his regrettable “Green Book,” the younger Farrelly demonstrates a considerably lighter and more unassuming touch. He’s got the same ragtag visual style that hasn’t progressed since “Dumb and Dumber,” and the film has no business running 124 minutes, but it’s also buoyant and breezy. You like spending time with these people, especially the Friends.
Played by ten disabled actors culled from a massive casting call, they’re a motley crew of wonderfully specific personalities that pop off the screen. The team is anchored by Kevin Iannucci’s Johnny, who will win you over the moment he introduces himself as “your homey with an extra chromey,” even if his aversion to showering makes life difficult for those playing downwind. These guys are really endearing, especially the one dude who keeps horrifying his teammates with graphic details about how much sex he’s having. It’s a scream to watch them all cower in fear of Madison Telvin’s Cosentino, the Friends’ lone female player and, inarguably, the boss. Unlike Hollywood’s usual depictions of people with disabilities, these aren’t wise-beyond-their-years angels here to teach the protagonist important lessons about what really matters. They’re funny and full of beans.
Harrelson is ideally cast. He has an easy, affable rapport with his players and doesn’t condescend to them or the audience. After a very badly staged sequence in which he gets himself fired — ported over almost shot-for-shot from the Spanish original — the actor wisely eases back on the character’s arrogance. Harrelson doesn’t hog the spotlight or foreground his character’s redemption. He generously cedes the screen to his co-stars, not just the Friends but also Johnny’s older sister, strikingly well-played by “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” star Kaitlin Olson. Turns out these two had a bad Tinder hookup some time ago, and circumstances keep pushing them into an affair of convenience that might be blossoming into something more.
Olson’s loving, overprotective relationship with Johnny is clearly modeled on Cameron Diaz and her brother in the Farrellys’ “There’s Something About Mary,” though this film features pointedly fewer of what the Friends call “boo-boo words” than we heard in that taboo-smashing classic. Harrelson’s presence might call to mind the filmmakers’ recklessly revolting 1996 masterpiece “Kingpin,” but “Champions” is more in the mellow spirit of their 2003 conjoined twins comedy “Stuck on You,” a movie so genial it sometimes felt like the brothers had forgotten to write any jokes.
“Champions” is the kind of misfit, underdog sports movie that has both EMF’s “Unbelievable” and Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” on the soundtrack. (I assumed you were only allowed to pick one.) No points for guessing if an NBA franchise might come calling with a job offer for our hero right before the big game or for predicting that it will all come down to a buzzer-beater in the final seconds. Yet there’s also comfort in these cliches, a satisfaction in seeing them brought off by characters you have come to care about. There isn’t a surprise in the movie except for how enjoyable it is.