There’s an expected formula for a sports movie, especially one about a team of underdogs. Champions, Bobby Farrelly’s first outing as a solo director, doesn’t do much to break out of that formula, but does embrace the genre’s penchant for heartwarming, uplifting stories. Written by Mark Rizzo and based on a 2018 Spanish film called Campeones (which is itself based on a true story), Champions is one of those movies that doesn’t swing for the fences or try to change the game. Instead, it wins with good sportsmanship and positivity.
CHAMPIONS ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Woody Harrelson plays Marcus, a minor league NBA basketball coach who has some issues. After he drunkenly crashes a car, Marcus accepts a sentence of community service to coach a team of players with intellectual disabilities. The team, The Friends, are not as hapless as Marcus expects; in fact, many of them are pretty good players. Their star, Darius (Joshua Felder), refuses to play for him, but Marcus manages to coach The Friends to victory on their way to the Special Olympics. In the meantime, he becomes romantically involved with Alex (Kaitlin Olson), the sister of his player Johnny (Kevin Iannucci).
Like in any good sports movie, basketball isn’t the ultimate point of Champions. There’s some gameplay shown onscreen, but it’s what happens off the court that’s of interest to Farrelly. Darius has his reasons for disliking Marcus, and Johnny, who still lives at home, wants to move into supported living with his pals against Alex’s wishes. The team’s lone female player Consentino (a charming Madison Tevlin) may be a better coach than their actual coach. And, of course, Marcus has to discover that The Friends mean more to him than ticking off a list of community service hours.
The ending, which centers on a championship game, has a cute twist and a kind-hearted message. Victory can mean many things, depending on what you need, and in Champions everyone gets what they need. Farrelly is careful to depict The Friends’ players without stereotype—all of them are played by actors with real intellectual disabilities. Marcus, who is basically Woody Harrelson doing his best Woody Harrelson, comes in with certain prejudices that he has to learn his way out of, which is effective. The rest of the cast, which includes Ernie Hudson, Matt Cook and Cheech Marin, fill in world with empathy, often nudging Marcus on the right path.
Although Champions is billed as a comedy, it’s lukewarm when it comes to jokes and gags. Some of the best one-liners come from the players, who give Harrelson ample opportunity to react to their antics. Olson, a great comedic actress, doesn’t have the opportunities to milk the camera for laughs. But maybe that doesn’t matter. The movie is entertaining and heartwarming, so there’s not necessarily an expectation for it to match the humor of past Farrelly Brothers efforts. Sometimes you just want to watch something feel-good, which is where Champions scores.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.