The Washington Post
In this comedy, only the supporting cast is at the top of its game
In “Champions,” a group of actors with intellectual disabilities do their best playing a team of basketball players with intellectual disabilities who are also doing their best. Unfortunately, most of the other people involved in the making of this forgettable movie perform at something less than the top of their game.
The central figure is Marcus ( Woody Harrelson), a basketball coach stuck in the minor leagues — specifically, Des Moines — because he’s self-centered and hottempered. Marcus is fired after he assaults his boss (Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson) during a midgame tussle over which play to call next. So he gets drunk and accidentally slams his car into a police cruiser. His sentence is a community-service gig coaching a team called the Friends at a facility run by Julio (Cheech Marin).
Concerned just with himself, Marcus befriends aspiring coach Sonny (Matt Cook) purely in hopes of advancing his own career, and spends time with local Shakespearean actress Alex (Kaitlin Olson) only because she’ll have sex with him. (In a stab at gender parity, Alex is portrayed as just as relationship-averse as Marcus.)
But Alex is also the sister of Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), a man with Down syndrome who’s a Friends player, so Marcus’s feelings are likely to get more complicated. It appears possible — okay, inevitable — that Marcus will end up becoming a nicer guy.
“Champions” is billed as a comedy, and while it is amiable, it doesn’t even take a shot at being hilarious. Adapted from a 2018 Spanish film, the movie is the first to be directed solo by Bobby Farrelly, who made such hits as “Dumb and Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary” with his brother Peter. As viewers of those farces might expect, “Champions” attempts to elicit laughs with vomit, flatulence and body odor. These lowbrow gags seem perfunctory, though, and tangential to the overall story.
Without seeing the Spanish film, it’s impossible to know whether Mark Rizzo’s screenplay is better or worse than the original. But the script is barely functional, and several key developments are remarkably feeble. When the Friends find they lack the money for a trip to a Special Olympics championship — in Winnipeg, where the movie was actually shot — Marcus and Alex’s solution is both ethically objectionable and narratively inept.
Farrelly more or less acknowledges this by rushing through the sequence.
Mostly staged like a conventional sports movie, “Champions” is almost entirely lacking in style and generally short on energy. Farrelly tries to compensate for the torpor by inserting snippets of dozens of pop tunes, notably Chumbawamba’s left-field 1997 hit, “Tubthumping,” which the movie employs as something of a Friends theme song.
Harrelson is in nearly every scene and doesn’t deviate at all from his usual routine. Marin and Hudson are likable yet barely register in their minor roles. Blessed with the most complex part, Olson gets to display more verve and emotional range than the other veterans. Yet the liveliest moments belong to the actors who play the Friends, including Joshua Felder as an unusually skilled shooter who won’t accept Marcus as the new coach, and Madison Tevlin as a woman who’s rather too short to succeed at basketball but who excels at motivating her teammates. Their featured scenes may be brief, but they’re the most winning thing about “Champions.”
PG-13. at area theaters. contains strong language and crude sexual references. 123 minutes.