There was a period between the mid-to-late 90’s and into the early 2010’s that filmmaking brothers Bobby and Peter Farrelly had something of a hold on the gross-out subsect of the comedy genre. After 1994’s Dumb & Dumber (which was actually directed by a solo Peter Farrelly) their films almost became something of an event, with 1998’s There’s Something About Mary essentially serving as the pinnacle to which most of their succeeding films would be compared to; Me, Myself & Irene, Say it Isn’t So, Shallow Hal, and Stuck On You varying in their degrees of critical and commercial success.
In the years since their last collaborative effort (2014’s less-than-appreciated Dumb & Dumber To), it’s been Peter that has surged as the more productive of the two, picking up an Oscar for Best Picture for 2018’s Green Book and then helming last year’s Zac Efron-led The Greatest Beer Run Ever; not bad for a filmmaker aligned with directing multiple segments of the catastrophic Movie 43 only a few years prior.
But what of Bobby? Reuniting with his Kingpin lead, Woody Harrelson, and managing a blend of the humour he clearly feels comfortable in navigating with a welcome sense of maturity, Champions is a supremely likeable comedy that continues Farrelly’s career-long inclusion of casting people with disabilities, and letting the comedic possibilities of that serve as something to laugh with instead of at.
Harrelson’s Marcus is a minor league basketball coach who dreams of a more noticeable career within the NBA. He’s passionate, to say the least, and when he pushes (literally) his team’s head coach (Ernie Hudson) out of frustration over a play he didn’t agree with, he’s ousted off the court, into a bottle of booze, and, ultimately, to jail when he rear-ends a police car off the account of his drunk driving. Avoiding serious jail time – though it is threatened – and because we wouldn’t have much of a movie if he did serve his sentence (well, we’d have a different type of movie), Marcus is ordered to 90 days of community service where he’ll coach a basketball team compiled of individuals with intellectual disabilities. They’re known as “The Friends”, and their aim is to play in the Special Olympics.
A remake of the 2018 Spanish film Campeones, Champions very much fits the mould of the underdog sports film, where the archetypal grumpy, disinterested coach has his heart warmed by the team he’s coaching. The predictable nature of the film doesn’t hurt Champions in any manner though, and to the credit of screenwriter Mark Rizzo he at least allows each player on the new team to shine through as individuals.
Johnny (Kevin Iannucci) is perhaps the player that earns the most prominence though, with him becoming quite attached to Marcus throughout, a bond extended from Marcus’s relationship with Johnny’s sister, Alex (a wisecracking Kaitlin Olson), who initially met Marcus in a one-night-stand capacity but grows to see his value as a human, a potential partner, and as a positive influence in Johnny’s life. There’s relationship difficulties explored here that audiences may not be expecting, as the film celebrates how independent Johnny truly is, and how him wanting to move out of home to live with his friends – something his own mother approves of – could be disapproved of by his sister, a relationship he clearly values; it also dabbles in how ignorant business owners view the value of disabled employees, with James Day Keith‘s endearing Benny constantly having his requests denied by his ignorant boss, something Marcus and Alex rectify in one of the film’s more hilarious set-pieces.
As much as the film details certain seriousness throughout, it never forgets that its primary function is to entertain. It knows it’ll succeed more so if Marcus is ultimately the butt of the joke, and Harrelson is a good enough sport to go along with it. It does also help that the ensemble here are all comedically gifted performers, with Madison Tevlin a particular standout as Consentino, the team’s sole female member, who brings Marcus down a peg or two at every turn she gets. Casey Metcalfe‘s Marlon, someone who takes things all too literally (there’s a running gag about erect penises that never fails to illicit laughs), and Joshua Felder‘s Darius, who can even make the delivery of “nope” a laugh-out-loud occasion, also earning prominent points.
Ultimately, you do know what you’re going to get with Champions, and sometimes the charm of familiarity is enough to stick by a 124 minute running time. Farrelly is confident in his direction of the genre, and in sticking to his sensibilities he’s created a warm, welcoming comedy that overcomes its predictable nature.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Champions is screening in Australian theatres from March 9th, 2023.