Synopsis – A former minor-league basketball coach is ordered by the court to manage a team of players with intellectual disabilities. He soon realizes that despite his doubts, together, this team can go further than they ever imagined.
My Take – At this point, I think we all have seen every form of a comedic sports redemption story throughout the years, and while one might expect the formula to go stale, Bobby Farrelly‘s solo directorial debut turns out to be one of the biggest surprises by how much it does well in the grand scheme of things.
A delightful if predictable story of hope and connection that provides a thoughtful insight into the world of sport for intellectually disadvantaged people of all ages.
Adapted from the 2018 Spanish film Campeones, which itself was inspired by a true story from Spain, the film follows the tried and tested formula for most underdog sports films, offering a nice reminder of how fun and enjoyable it is to watch a feel good film where jokes mostly land and uses it’s accessible nature to inform and educate as well as entertain.
Sure, it’s predictable, but the story line just works on many levels, and director Farrelly and writer Mark Rizzo handle a sensitive topic well. Told with its heart largely in the right place, and featuring a good cast, this is an easy watch and something that passes a couple of hours.
It is an underdog story with plenty of heart, and it serves up all the right uplifting moments at exactly the right time. I was genuinely entertained by this film from start to end.
The story follows Marcus Marakovich (Woody Harrelson), a combative, self-destructive, down on his luck screw-up assistant coach for the Iowa Stallions of the G League (the NBA’s minor league basketball organization), who despite having a brilliant mind for basketball and a key eye to make it to the NBA, is terrible at building relationships which has led to him being fired and kicked out of several international leagues.
Now stuck in Des Moines, working under his friend and the Stallions’ head coach Phil Perretti (Ernie Hudson), Marcus’s temper gets the best of him once again when he loses his temper and pushes Phil to the floor over a disagreement, consequently getting him fired from his position.
To make matters worse, Marcus follows that by getting behind the wheel after knocking a few too drinks at a local bar and rear-ends a police car leading to him being arrested and booked for driving under the influence. And when Marcus appears for his hearing, the judge gives him a choice of 18 months in prison or 90 days of community service with a local community center’s basketball team for people who have learning disabilities, The Friends.
Agreeing to community service, Marcus soon realizes that coaching the team will be a professional and personal challenge, especially when he begins a relationship with Alex (Kaitlin Olson), an overly-protective older sister of one of the players.
Here, Bobby Farrelly, one half of the mischievous and notorious Farrelly brothers duo, swaps genres just as well as his brother did with the Oscar winning Green Book (2018), balancing the humor and heartfelt moments really well, keeping the film moving at a nice place with a fair few montages and plenty of needle drops to make it more enjoyable.
Yes, the film is every bit as predictable and formulaic as any sports film that came before it. There’s hardly a story beat that you haven’t seen before, and you’ll know the outcome within the first 15 minutes.
Yet it has enough crowd-pleasing mojo to make it worth sitting through. What makes the film a treat is the deftness with which Mark Rizzo’s script sidesteps sentimentality in favor of something more raucously truthful, conjuring fully rounded characters with believably messy lives, all delivered with confidence.
But while some viewers believe that the film doesn’t respect the intellectually challenged actors enough, on the contrary, their diversity is evident, and their keeping Marcus in his place is clear.
Director Farrelly and writer Rizzo, working with the original material, and the actors, offer a depiction of these characters and their lives as full with responsibilities, relationships, and joy. When Coach Marcus comes along, he’s just the icing on the cake.
They were champs before he showed up, and the film is his journey to realizing that. Sure, it’s not going to surprise anyone with its story, but it will get people on board with its good intentions.
Performance wise, Woody Harrelson is well cast in his portrayal of this disheveled, flawed, yet endearing characterization of Coach Marcus. After a few years of supporting performances, it’s great to see Harrelson back in a lead role, flawed but still likeable and always charming. It also helps that he has Kaitlin Olson by his side, who for a change isn’t wasted and gets plenty of screen time and depth. In supporting roles, Cheech Marin, Matt Cook and Ernie Hudson make like likable appearances.
However, the true stars of the film are the members of the Friends team, and the film wisely gives them to time to shine on their own a few times, proving they’re just as funny and talented.
Madison Tevlin, Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci, Ashton Gunning, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, James Day Keith, Alex Hintz, Casey Metcalfe and Bradley Edens are refreshing and would be a welcome addition to other screen gems ushering in more diversity and inclusion in the film industry. On the whole, ‘Champions’ is an uplifting and charming sports comedy that tells a delightful if predictable underdogs story.
Directed – Bobby Farrelly
Starring – Woody Harrelson, Ernie Hudson, Cheech Marin
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 124 minutes