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‘Champions’ Review: Special Olympics dramedy shoots but doesn't quite score

Woody Harrelson stars as a downtrodden coach assigned to a Special Olympics team in a comedy that doesn't get its priorities straight.
Credit: Focus Features

SAN ANTONIO — In “Champions,” an unassuming basketball squad from Nowheresville, U.S.A. miraculously pulls it all together at the behest of a haggard coach who would rather be anywhere else, only to discover that anywhere else suddenly isn’t as appealing as the right here, right now. 

Sounds familiar right? In the grand history of the movies, there are few narrative blueprints that have proven more formidable. Mix in a reliable leading man, some emotion, the right needle drops and… swish

The difference with “Champions” (directed by Bobby Farrelly, his first film since 2014’s “Dumb and Dumber To”) is that the team we’re rooting on is a ragtag group of athletes with intellectual disabilities, a touch that varnishes the movie’s scuzzier moments and adopted-family sentimentality with notable aims of representation. These are the Friends, a Des Moines-based squad that’s supposedly a Special Olympics team, though when we meet them alongside Woody Harrelson’s Marcus – who has been assigned to coach them as part of a 90-day community service stint – the movie doesn’t immediately indicate if they’re a triumphant team or a basement-dwelling one. 

Not that it’s a nagging mystery; “Champions” wouldn’t make movie sense if the Friends were champions to begin with. Once we notice that their star player has no interest in Marcus and their tallest insists on shooting backwards, you have enough Xs and Os to conclude that the Friends have nowhere to go but up. The lack of a plot focus and its comedic tones flopping across MPAA ratings aside, “Champions” is ostensibly about a team that experiences such an ascension that grabs the heart of a city…

…or at least that’s what the movie might have in mind, between an assortment of scenes showing Marcus finding his own path in love, life and the game. That Harrelson’s generically appealing grumbler, a temporary G-League exile who nonetheless dreams of coaching in the NBA, owns the story’s most shapely character arc might indicate misplaced priorities for writer Mark Rizzo (he’s adapting a 2018 Spanish film of the same name and material). Another case could be made, if we were feeling generous, that the most revolutionary thing about “Champions” is that it retains the cliches from the most crowdpleasing of movie genres for its cast of disabled ballers, right down to the teammate who must reckon between personal goals and practical ones. 

It’s both refreshing and sensical that in the 2023 version of “Champions” it’s the able-bodied but otherwise selfish coach who has to learn how to fit in instead of the other way around; that would’ve been the blueprint 20 or 30 years ago. But “Champions” simply isn’t confident or committed enough to pull off the subversion, even if the microdoses of charm offered by the individual Friends themselves churn up just enough sentiment for the characters. Many of these actors are notching their debut performances, and while the screenplay is clearly playing favorites, Kevin Iannucci and Joshua Felder stand out as Johnny and Darius, respectively; the former sports some pitch-perfect comedic timing while the latter holds his own as a bench player with a tough dramatic assignment. 

In any case, it’s fine if “Champions” wants to double-dribble across sports-movie tropes. But it’s far too easy to call foul on a story that can feel as reductive off the court as it is empowering on it. Outside the community center where they train, “Champions” for some reason sees fit to dip back into anachronistic attitudes, relegating the players to victims they already know they’re not. Why paint their circumstances this way when they have already developed personalities and conflicts transcending their disabilities? It’s a curious decision that betrays the movie’s mission, and only underscores the already mediocre choreography of what few basketball scenes we’re actually offered. When the movie eventually decides it has some convictions, even Marcus’s evolution is revealed to have been portrayed more successfully via mere happenstance. 

When the Friends are playing at their home gym, spectators cheer from bleachers set up where they normally wouldn’t be for a basketball game: the stage. It would be a nice metaphor for a movie that simply adjusts the view to familiar cinematic sight, but “Champions” strays too far from the playbook on too often an occasion to justify it. 

"Champions" is rated PG-13 for strong language and crude/sexual references. It opens in theaters Friday. Runtime: 2 hours, 3 minutes. 

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Matt Cook, Ernie Hudson

Directed by Bobby Farrelly; adapted by Mark Rizzo from the screenplay by Javier Fesser




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