Review: ‘Champions’

Bobby Farrelly's Special Needs Comedy Is A Relic That Should Stay Benched

We haven’t seen a feature film from the Farrelly Brothers since 2014’s unfortunate Dumb and Dumber To. That proves to be a significant touchstone in the Farrellys’ individual careers. Peter flew solo and gained immense respectability by winning the Best Picture Oscar for Green Book, followed by last year’s solid The Last Beer Run Ever. Meanwhile, Bobby has been MIA, presumably figuring out how best to reemerge onto the landscape. Well, Bobby basically chose to just keep on doing what he’d been doing, with largely the same well-intentioned but problematic results.

Champions feels like a throwback comedy from the ’90s or early 2000s, when the Farrellys would make a light-hearted romp represented by one marginalized group or another. While it was often those with mental disabilities, like the aforementioned Dumb and Dumber films or Me Myself & Irene, there were also overweight people as with Shallow Hal. Whatever one thinks of those movies, they were largely coming from the right place even if the humor and verbiage was insulting. With Champions, which stars Woody Harrelson as a minor league basketball coach forced by a judge to lead a Special Olympics squad, also has its heart in the right place, but its head up its own ass.

Based on a Mark Rizzo script and a remake of 2018 Spanish hit Campeones which is taken from a true story, Champions offers little in the way of surprises. Harrelson’s disgraced NBA G-League coach Marcus is a bit of a prick, as most Harrelson characters in sports movies tend to be. His team sucks, and his coaching staff is lame. But Marcus keeps one around and pretends to be his friend because he has family who could maybe get him a legit NBA coaching job. So we know that Marcus is a user. He also gets around. The opening scene has him in an embarrassing hook-up date with Alex (Kaitlin Olson), who ends up playing a pivotal role.

Just when things are starting to look up, Marcus’ own arrogance leads to him crashing into a parked police car. The judge orders him to do community service, 90 days of coaching a struggling basketball team full of misfits with special needs. Years ago, the cast might have included one actual special needs person who would be singled out and given a humiliating role. At least Champions does away with that and casts actual people with disabilities to play members of the team. Representation matters, and not seeing people like yourself reflected in our media leads to a feeling that you are invisible to the outside world.

It’s just a shame that the team members are all a bunch of weirdos. Unfunny weirdos at that, with strange quirks that we are left to believe are a result of their specific disabilities. There’s one player, Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), with Down Syndrome and an aversion to bathing. There’s one female on the team, Cosentino (Madison Tevlin), who is like a bull in a china shop. Another, named Showtime (Bradley Edens), can only shoot the basketball by lobbing it over his head backward. Does he ever make this shot? No. So why does he keep doing it? Sadly, these individual traits become their thing, and little is done to flesh any of the players as more than just their one weird personality or physical trait.

Marcus does take a particular interest in Johnny because, well, Alex is his older sister. After their disastrous one-night-stand, she’s giddy at the prospect of watching Marcus deal with this Bad News Bears of a b-ball squad. But she’s also fiercely protective of Johnny and the rest of the team. She sees through Marcus’ nonsense, especially in the beginning, and turns out to be quite the guiding force in his eventual evolution. You’re not being spoiled on anything to learn that Marcus, who actually uses a derogatory term for disabled people early on, becomes a much better person by the movie’s end. There will come a moment when Marcus is forced to make a choice between the dream he’s always wanted, and doing the right thing to help the team he’s come to respect. A No-Prize if you can guess how Marcus decides.

Champions is a well-meaning crowd-pleaser that does try to encourage us to have a laugh or two at our differences, although the actual humor feels like someone dusted off jokes their grandpa used to really get a kick out of. While I respect casting disabled actors and encourage it in similar situations, it doesn’t always equate to naturalistic performances. While Harrelson navigates this territory with ease due to his experience, the real standout is Olson. The It’s Always Sunny star makes the most from a role that asks her to be more than conniving or mean-spirited, and she shows the potential for bigger and better performances in the future. As for Bobby Farrelly, he’s comfortable staying in his lane, and that lane is comedy that makes us feel a bit uncomfortable whether we are laughing at or laughing with. Is there a market for that kind of movie anymore? My gut tells me “no”, and even if there was, Champions would still be riding the bench.

Champions opens in theaters on March 10th.


Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-championsWe haven't seen a feature film from the Farrelly Brothers since 2014's unfortunate Dumb and Dumber To. That proves to be a significant touchstone in the Farrellys' individual careers. Peter flew solo and gained immense respectability by winning the Best Picture Oscar for Green...