Does “Champions” have its heart in the right place? That question, with regards to Bobby Farrelly’s latest starring Woody Harrelson, is honestly harder to answer than one might think. The film, directed by Farrelly and written by Mark Rizzo (who adapted it from the 2018 Mexican feature “Campeones”), casts Harrelson as a troublemaking basketball coach who, after a DUI gets sentenced to 90 days of community service helping a team of young adults with intellectual disabilities.
On one hand, Farrelly has made an earnest attempt at a feel-good comedy, complete with its share of moments meant to tear-jerk about an underdog team subverting prejudice. On the other, it operates from a place of ignorance that assumes its audience will laugh at that ignorance and recognize it in themselves. “Champions” makes jokes about the r-word being a “no no word,” but it also seems a little too eager to use that word itself, as said jokes prove.
What emerges is a film that lands in an uncomfortable space between understanding and mockery. Like its grouchy hero, it wants to be applauded for its tolerance, while also mining laughs out its characters’ differences. It almost feels imported from the ’90s — when it would have been more novel to argue that people with intellectual disabilities deserve the barest level of respect. Now, it just feels out of date.
Harrelson stars as Marcus Markovich, an assistant coach for a low-level basketball team in Des Moines, who thinks he should be in the NBA. He’s fired after shoving his boss (Ernie Hudson) for not listening to his ideas for plays during a game, and then goes on a bender which ends with Marcus, behind the wheel, crashing into a cop car. (His accident occurs when he’s distracted by watching the police officers frisk two Black men, a bit that exemplifies some of the blitheness of tone that skirts at social commentary, but just ends up being insensitive.)
Courtesy of Focus Features
A judge offers Marcus a sentence coaching a team of intellectually disabled misfits called the Friends at the local rec center. Marcus is, of course, resistant, but it’s his only way to avoid jail time, so he eventually goes along with the plan. When he finally meets the team, Marcus is confused and frustrated. Their best player Darius (Joshua Felder) won’t play for him, simply saying “nope” in response to any request. The gregarious Johnny (Kevin Iannucci) smells bad. Craig (Matthew Von Der Ahe) won’t stop talking about having sex with his girlfriend. Showtime (Bradley Edens) will only shoot the ball backwards, doing a celebration after every miss.
Farrelly’s camera lingers over the group during their introduction as if to highlight how odd it is that these people would be basketball players. The lens takes on Marcus’ perspective, confused and unsettled. Of course, in a classic turn of events, stealing from everything from “The Bad News Bears” to “A League of their Own,” Marcus learns to be a better person, gets invested, and leads his squad to success.
Rizzo’s script both indulges in stereotypes and tries to combat them through clunky exposition, often delivered by Julio (Cheech Marin), who runs the rec center and explains to Marcus that the Friends players live full lives, wherein they work jobs and live on their own.
Marcus’ connections to the players get even deeper when he discovers that Johnny’s sister Alex (Kaitlin Olson) is no less than a woman with whom he had a previous one-night stand (one that ended with some, quire literal, middle fingers raised). Her skepticism quickly morphs into a friends-with-benefits situation that turns more serious the more time they spend with each other and the Friends. Olson and Harrelson have an easy chemistry, and she gives a standout performance — mixing the wry delivery she’s honed from years on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” with the pathos of a woman who has purposely kept her world small to avoid getting hurt.
If Olson feels like a fresh big screen presence — give her a rom-com! — Harrelson is on complete autopilot, playing the same gregarious but crotchety beats we’ve seen him hit a million times at this point. He’s so easygoing, even when he’s supposed to be a hothead, there’s never any question Marcus is going to turn out to be a good guy.
Even though there’s a very simple formula to “Champions,” Rizzo’s screenplay meanders through various subplots, including Marcus’ quest to get rehired by a professional team, Alex’s personal hangups, and a late-in-the-game blackmail plot. That last thread is a moment where you can feel the wacky Farrelly instincts butting up against the more inspirational elements of the plot.
Such is the bizarre central tension of “Champions”: As soon as you find yourself getting potentially sucked in by its sweetness, it throws out a fart joke or another gag that hits at the lowest common denominator. Most grimly, it assumes that its viewers need to be convinced to give the humanity of the intellectually disabled. As a society, we should be better than Marcus Markovich, and it shouldn’t take a movie to remind us of that.
Focus Features will release “Champions” in theaters on Friday, March 10.