Let’s first talk about the real stars of Champions. There’s Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), who loves working at an animal shelter and loves Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping. There’s Craig (Matthew Von Der Ahe), a self-proclaimed ladies’ man who loves bragging about his conquests. There’s Cosentino (Madison Tevlin), a fearless sparkplug who loves blunt honesty. And there’s Darius (Joshua Felder), who loves to say no to Coach Marcus (Woody Harrelson). We find out why later.
Those are just some of the members of a Special Olympics basketball team in Iowa. If this Bobby Farrelly-directed feature focused more on these unique athletes, Champions could have been better. Instead, it’s a sports film with familiar packaging.
Farrelly who, along with his brother Peter, made memorable 90s comedies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, sticks to the redemption playbook. Unfortunately, this lukewarm comedy gives us too much Harrelson and not enough of his extraordinary costars. The cast features actors with intellectual disabilities. They could have used more screen time, especially scene-stealing Tevlin who has Down Syndrome. The 21-year-old Canadian might be a future star.
Farrelly’s heart seems to be in the right place. He has used non-conventional actors in his movies before such as Rene Kirby, who was born with spina bifida. Applaud him for inclusion, but wonder if this story’s framing could have been more effective.
Champions is a remake of the 2018 Spanish film Campeones. In Farrelly’s version, Marcus is a talented but troubled minor-league coach who dreams of getting his shot in the NBA. But after an in-game confrontation with his boss and a DUI, he’s fired and is court-ordered to coach young adults with disabilities as part of his community service. Marcus is a jerk who uses the ‘R-word’ before a judge. Not an ideal choice for this assignment. But this is the easily recognized path the narrative travels.
Using the Special Olympics as a plot device to show how a man can change seems off. We’re supposed to believe that, like The Grinch, Marcus’s small heart grew three sizes from coaching those with special needs. That’s too simplistic. People don’t change that much, especially older adults. And yet, Marcus goes from a louse to a hero at a fast-break pace.
This cliché goes how you expect. There are no stunning revelations. The coach who doesn’t want to be there suddenly wants to be there. And to ratchet up the stakes, a love interest is mixed into the formula. No major complaints here. This part of the movie mostly works due to Kaitlin Olson. Her character, Alex, brings much-needed energy. Despite Champions’ predictability, some moments draw you in. The Meatloaf Monday dinner scene is a high point that feels real in its awkwardness and vulnerability. It’s actually how two people in an undefined relationship would behave.
Harrelson is a three-time Oscar nominee who has starred in numerous sports movies like White Men Can’t Jump, Kingpin, and Semi-Pro. Farrelly gives him a meaty role, but his presence doesn’t elevate this story.
Champions is meant to be a feel-good experience with cameos from Scott Van Pelt and Jalen Rose. For many, that will suffice. The Special Olympics is certainly deserving of the Hoosiers’ treatment. Undoubtedly, this will do a lot of good for a worthy organization in terms of fundraising and marketing.
#Champions star Madison Tevlin shares her favorite moment from working on the new Focus Features film pic.twitter.com/F2Jcw8BEWh— The Hollywood Reporter (@THR) February 28, 2023
Champions is a decent film that could have been so much more.
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