In Champions, a remake of the 2018 Spanish film Campeones, Woody Harrelson plays a basketball coach who, by force of circumstance, must take the helm for a team of intellectually challenged Special Olympians. Of course, Harrelson launched his career playing the charmingly not-so-bright Woody on Cheers. And the film is directed by Bobby Farrelly, who, in partnership with his brother Peter, launched his career with Dumb And Dumber, where most of the laughs were at the expense of the blindingly stupid characters played by Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. Bobby Farrelly also produced The Ringer, with Johnny Knoxville pretending to be mentally challenged in order to participate in the Special Olympics. Whether Champions is an act of irony or of penance for Farrelly is anyone’s guess.
Marcus (Harrelson) is the assistant coach for a minor-league team in Des Moines, Iowa. After a scuffle with his boss (the awesome Ernie Hudson, underused here and underused in general, given his incredible screen presence), he’s fired. Naturally, he gets drunk and is pulled over for a DUI. His sentence is to do 90 days of community service, coaching a team called The Friends at a recreation center run by Julio (Cheech Marin).
They are an unpromising group, more than a little difficult to wrangle, due to their particular limitations. Marlon (Casey Metcalfe) has autism that sometimes leads to distraction. Johnny (Kevin Ianucci) has Down Syndrome but is also pathologically afraid of water and hence refuses to ever bathe. Showtime (Bradley Edens) is fixated on always taking his shot from mid-court with his back to the basket.
As you can easily predict, the grumpy Marcus initially refers to his assignment as working with “retards.” As you can even more easily predict, he comes to hate that term and to realize that his charges are all distinct individuals, some of whom have lives that are frankly more fulfilling than his own.
Farrelly and screenwriter Mark Rizzo follow the Spanish original—directed by Javier Fesser, who also co-wrote the screenplay with David Marques—almost slavishly, with much of the dialogue and even some shots duplicated exactly. Even most of the team members seem to have been cast to look like the Spanish actors. Campeones was a huge hit and won Best Picture at the Goya Awards—the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars—so this is a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The one major change the new version brings to the story is the handling of the romantic subplot, which is improved here. Originally, the coach was in the midst of a separation, but needs his wife to help out with driving the team to their away games. Marcus, however, is a creature of one-night stands, and sparks fly when one of the hookups he has treated shabbily (Kaitlin Olson) is revealed to be Johnny’s sister. They resume their sexual relationship after she is press-ganged into becoming their driver. This change better integrates the romance with the rest of the story and also feels truer to Marcus’ character.
The Friends are all played by actors with the intellectual challenges of their characters. Or almost all: the press notes are very clear on all but one (Matthew Von Der Ahe), which suggests that he is a ringer. They are fully up to the task, particularly Madison Tevlin, who has Down Syndrome, as the one woman on the team; she steals every scene she’s in.
There is inevitably the question of whether, in one way or another, the film is exploitative. Given the great effort to show us the lives of the players, I think not ... but I’m not fully confident. The central transformation here belongs to Marcus, who, natch, finds himself a better person for having coached the team; there are some character arcs among the players, but, to a certain extent, they are there primarily to effect changes in Marcus. It’s a variation of what Spike Lee dubbed the “Magical Negro”—The Blind Side, Driving Miss Daisy, and more literally The Legend Of Bagger Vance—but here it’s the Magical Intellectually Challenged.
In any case, compared to other Farrelly films, Champions has barely enough laughs to qualify as a comedy. And, at 2 hours and 3 minutes, it overstays its welcome. Harrelson is enjoyable as always, and the rest of the cast delivers, but the film is too warm, fuzzy, predictable, and by the numbers to be anything more than a pleasant diversion that will vanish from your mind by the time you leave the multiplex.
Champions opens nationwide on March 10