I was hoping that the new movie “Champions” starring Woody Harrelson and directed by Bobby Farrelly would do good things for the community of the intellectually disabled. It certainly had the proper tools.
The intentions were good, but I’m afraid it falls short in many cases.
The film, a remake of the 2018 Spanish box office hit “Campeones,” follows Marcus Markovich (Harrelson), an assistant coach for a semi-pro basketball team in Des Moines, Iowa.
Markovich is hotheaded (apparently) and difficult to work with, as we are told. He’s been fired from jobs and has moved around the world, trying to get along and find someone he can work with. After getting upset that the head coach won’t listen to him, he shoves the coach and goes viral.
He is promptly fired and decides to drive his car after a bender in a local bar. However, he gets distracted and smashes into the back of a police car. Needless to say, he winds up in court, and after finding out how much time he will spend behind bars, agrees to coach a team of basketball players with special needs. The film then follows a predictable formula: reluctant coach, eager but untalented athletes, hard work, endearing scenes, skills improve, team advances to the big game.
You can almost get this much from the trailer.
Harrelson can’t help that he is charming and easy-going. It’s hard for him to convince us he’s really as arrogant and hard to get along with as everyone says he is. Indeed, from the get-go, he seems to be loving and patient with this group of kids who challenge him to the nth degree. Almost from the beginning, he is warm and welcoming.
He doesn’t seem to be too concerned with the 90 days of community service, nor does he balk too much at anything. It’s very difficult to see any conflict within this character, and therefore we are unable to really see any shift from uncaring to caring. Harrelson’s Marcus just always seems like a good guy.
Cheech Marin as the gym manager, Julio and Ernie Hudsom as Phil, the friend and coach shoved by Marcus, do a respectable job at giving the audience and Marcus background on the characters in the story. Kaitlin Olson as Marcus’s Tinder hook-up-turned-love-interest is equally charming and funny, and gives her character enough layers that she is endearing.
The real stars of the show are the cast portraying the basketball players themselves, known as “The Friends.” These actors are gifted with incredible depth, impeccable comedic ability, and a work ethic that is evident.
However, they battle a script that gives them forced dialogue to deliver, misplaced and off-color jokes, and silly personas that just don’t seem to fit. Much of their well-intended scenes seemed highly rehearsed, wooden and memorized. Moreover, although there is some information about the everyday lives of each of the “Friends,” they are never quite given an adequate amount of attention.
It’s a shame that an opportunity to show audiences a more composite portrayal of folks with disabilities wasn’t taken. Still, it should be noted that this group made up of Madison Tevlin (Constantino), Joshua Felder (Darius), Kevin Iannucci (Johnny), Ashton Gunning (Cody), Matthew Von Der Ahe (Craig), Tom Sinclair (Blair), James Day Keith (Benny), Alex Hintz (Arthur), Casey Metcalfe (Marlon), and Bradley Edens (the hilarious “Showtime”), gives it their all and do an exemplary job of making their characters memorable.
Is it a “feel-good” film? If you don’t look too closely, I suppose so. There are some entertaining, funny and heartfelt moments that will please audiences and get them aggravated at this mediocre review. And as I said, Farrely and the scriptwriters had good intentions. It’s tough to do anything new or original (and after all, it’s a remake) in an inspirational sports movie.
Sometimes insensitive, often uncomfortable, and almost always patronizing, I can’t do more than give this film a solid C.
Champions opens in theaters March 10 and is rated PG-13. Running time is 123 minutes.