Bobby Farrelly and Woody Harrelson come together in Champions, a comedy following disgraced basketball coach Marcus (Harrelson) as he coaches a team of Disabled adults who exceed his expectations. Champions mark the first collaboration between Farrelly and Harrelson since the 1996 comedy classic Kingpin and the first time in nearly ten years that Farrelly returned to the big screen, even without his brother Peter. This is an American reiteration of the Spanish film Campeones from 2018 which garnered much critical by winning the Spanish Film Academy’s Goya Award and became the biggest box office hit of the same year. Farrelly, Harrelson, and Paul Brooks (producer) loved the original story so much, this very quickly became a passion project with a lot of heart. The film is overall very formulaic, there really is not much there to surprise you if you’ve seen Kicking and Screaming, a cousin to this one, but there it is a feel-good-flick for a reason.
The basketball film begins with Marcus (Harrelson) and Alex (Kaitlin Olson) after spending the night together where Marcus pushes her out as quickly as possible to make sure she is not in love with him. Then we see who Marcus is as a professional: a begrudged and hot-headed assistant coach to Coach Phil Perretti (Ernie Hudson). Within the first 5 minutes of the film, Marcus is fired from his job after pushing Perretti for denying his suggestion, and we see how he is unable to hold onto any sort of relationship. On his drive home after downing a few too many at the bar, Marcus drunkenly crashes into a police car and walks away with a DUI. Right after there is one very uncomfortable court hearing as the “r-word” is used a little too easily, where Marcus chooses to serve community service coaching an adult basketball league instead of spending time behind bars. There is a 90-day timer on Marcus’ time with his newest team, and his patience is tested as he begins to coach the team of Disabled adults who do not take to his usual coaching style. Quickly we find that Marcus is angry, stubborn, and unable to form intimate relationships of any kind. Harrelson’s character is what people would describe as a “user,” someone who sees people more as stepping-stones or a chance to get something for himself. Champions explore the relationship between someone as close-minded and stubborn as Marcus at a crossroads where he is forced to open himself up to something other than the life he thinks he deserves.
Cheech Marin and Kaitlin Olson make up the lead supporting roles where at times they bring the spotlight over to them. Olson plays alongside Harrelson as his love interest, Alex who has a brother on the team that Marcus is coaching. The It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star proves just how strong of a lead she is throughout this film, she knows how to mix her blunt comedy with a sappy side to her while keeping toe-to-toe with Harrelson. Marin is no stranger to a buddy comedy, but in Champions he graces the screen, molding into a kind and generous community-centered man just here out of love and the goodness of his heart. It is the supporting characters that bring love into the film as they aim to teach Marcus how to form relationships of all kinds.
In order to make Markus likable to the viewers, he needed to show some sort of change and evolution, that is where the basketball team comes in. All of the folks cast on the team are Disabled adults who came from all over the country and Canada to audition for the role. The ensemble brings the most amount of joy and positivity to the film as their excitement to work every day is palpable. Cosentino (Madison Tevlin), Darius (Joshua Felder), and Johnny (Kevin Iannucci) on the basketball team bring the power, but Felder really is something special. The dynamic amongst the players is incredibly supportive with unwavering tenacity that allows the film to have little to no “low point.” The players are the first test for Marcus to see if he will follow through with his commitment and begging to understand those he is coaching.
There are quite a few cheesy parts of the film: the roll call where every player is introduced as they leave the building one by one, losing travel money but then pulling off a scheme to get it, and the way everything works out perfectly. Even though it is very predictable, the film goes down smoothly and does not push boundaries.
Behind the film, there is a wonderful backstory as to why Farrelly was the perfect choice to bring this film to light. Bobby and Peter Farrelly were honored with the Martin E. Ruderman award in 2020 for their inclusion of Disabled people in entertainment. Through many of their films, Disabled people are included as supporting and staring characters and utilized just as any able-bodied actor was. The Farrelly brothers have also been very outspoken throughout their decades making films that Hollywood has missed so many opportunities to work with Disabled folks, for their exclusion has robbed many people of the joy and beauty of inclusivity. Champions gave Bobby Farrelly a chance to include almost an entire supporting cast of Disabled adults and bring the joy and beauty of the Disabled community to the big screen. Though Champions may be a bit formulaic, its effect on the entertainment industry should not be looked over. It is a movie that celebrated inclusivity and just how in the dark everyday people are on what it means to be Disabled. Farrelly celebrates the goodness of all people and Champions shows Hollywood there can be a film cast with Disabled actors as their stories are just as important to be told as everyone else’s. See the matinee showing with the family. Sit and turn your brain off a little bit for two hours and think about what a great step in the right direction this film is for kindness and love is what you walk away with.