While Peter Farrelly was set to win the Oscars for ‘Green Book’, younger brother Bobby has been largely absent from directing feature films. It’s been nearly a decade since the siblings shared credit — the last time being 2014’s “Dumb and Dumber To.” Now, rather than competing with Peter at the respectability game, Bobby is sticking to what he knows with “Champions,” in which Woody Harrelson plays a minor league basketball coach assigned by the court to help out a Special Olympics team for 90 days – just long enough to grow the team from bumbling incompetents to national finalists.
There are no surprises in “Champions,” unless you count the sizable shock that such a film exists. A remake of 2018’s Spanish box office sensation ‘Campeones’, this goofy (if presumably well-intentioned) comedy might have felt enlightened 25 years ago – back when ‘Forrest Gump’ was an Oscar favorite – but today, she gives a condescending portrayal of people with intellectual disabilities. It’s still better than no representation at all, I suppose, and there’s a certain satisfaction in watching Harrelson’s character overcome his prejudices – reflected by using the word that starts with “R” – and grow to see these athletes amateurs for more than their limits. But did the movie (little more than a “Role Models” redux) have to paint its actors as such clown characters from the start?
To his credit, Farrelly has made room for characters with differences and disabilities his entire career, encouraging audiences to laugh. with (rather than To) everything from Cameron Diaz’s “touch sensitive” brother in “There’s Something About Mary” to virtually the entire cast of “The Ringer,” which he produced. Farrelly doesn’t work according to the ‘politically correct’ playbook (‘Shallow Hal’ anyone?), but he pledges to remind the public that most people don’t look and act like stars movies.
It goes without saying – but bears repeating, because Hollywood so often ignores this point – that excluding any population gives the false impression that the real world looks like the filtered version we see on screen. For people with disabilities, invisibility means that the general public is not exposed to the kind of behavior that makes them uncomfortable in the real world. ‘Champions’ delves into the comedic potential of this discomfort, casting ‘the Friends’ (the misfit team that Harrelson’s Marcus has to assist) as an assortment of klutzes – the sort of broad, silly stereotypes you’d expect from a movie. like “Revenge of the Nerds” – to which good sport Harrelson plays the glorified babysitter.
Marlon (Casey Metcalfe) wears a padded helmet and thick goggles, speaks several languages and quotes obscure anecdotes on command. Showtime (Bradley Edens) only knows one shot, which is to throw the ball over his head, but he rarely comes within 10 feet of the basket. Johnny (Kevin Iannucci) has Down syndrome and resistance to showering; he also has a sexy older sister, Alex (Kaitlin Olson), who Marcus bonds with in the opening scene. With the exception of wild girl Cosentino (Madison Tevlin), they’re all dudes.
When Marcus takes the job, the players can barely dribble, wincing every time a ball is thrown at them. At the end of the season, they play like the Harlem Globetrotters. But as gym director Julio (Cheech Marin) explains, Friends have already been let down, dragged down, and let down by someone who wasn’t really committed to the task.
As punishment for crashing into a cop car while drunk, Marcus has been ordered to do community service, but he has no intention of volunteering one day. more than the mandatory 90. No prizes for predicting how his attitude will change in those three months. . At first, Marcus sees the team as hopeless, and who can blame him, given all the slapstick shtick Farrelly puts them through? But then the games start and Friends start winning.
Next thing we know, the team got invited to the Special Olympics championship in Winnipeg, Marcus got invited to a meatloaf dinner at Johnny and Alex’s house, and the NBA invited Marcus to take a coaching gig professional who would tear him away from friends. It all plays out fairly predictably, with one exception, depending on how you feel about the “Hoosiers” reference early on.
Had it come out three decades earlier, “Champions” almost certainly would have been the feel-good movie of 1993. Today, it’s an oddly dated opportunity for disabled actors with real-world hoop skills from playing silly caricatures of themselves – this is where Farrelly’s work and some other films, like “How’s Your News?”, broke ground before, reminding audiences that differences can be fun and that it is normal to laugh. The performances here have some limitations (line readings seem memorized, never spontaneous), but overall the film creates memorable three-dimensional characters of its players, and that’s a start.