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champions.jpg

Review: 'Champions' Sure Is A Sports Movie Starring Woody Harrelson

By Jason Adams | Film | March 10, 2023 |

By Jason Adams | Film | March 10, 2023 |


champions.jpg

There might not be any “I” in Team, but there is an “I” in Movies. And in Film. There’s one in Cinema, and in Flicks—there’s no way around it, really. Movies seem to demand a sliver of individuality. I mean the math of that is right there in the word, with its “I”! But then, defying that math like a star quarterback who gets Coach to twist the math teacher’s arm for that passing grade to get him into the Big Game, we have Sports Movies. Sports Cinema. Sports Flicks. A canon of storytelling so conformist it’s managed to turn the very idea of individuality into a logo, a brand. Rudy, Rocky, O.J. Simpson—I mean the fact that 45 years on we still talk about the fact that Rocky loses the big fight to Apollo as if the Earth opened up and swallowed humanity that day ought to tell us something.

But we keep on keeping on. Slotting Slot A into Tab B and telling the same damn sports story, over and over and over again. There’s pleasure in the repetition, they tell us. In the ages-old myth of the underdog, the little boy David knocking down the big boy Goliath by way of Drago by way of Mr. T. We switch in Jamaican bobsleds for rom-com toe-picks, and when the Rancho Carne Toros lose to the East Compton Clovers in the last act we freak out all over again, as if the wheel itself is suddenly seen through fresh eyes.

This is the very long way of saying that director Bobby Farrelly’s film Champions, about a rag-tag bunch of special-needs basketball players that get coached by a down-on-his-luck Woody Harrelson, is exactly the movie you think it is. If I asked you to write the script in the comments of this review, 95% of you would get it 95% correct. Don’t let the former Farrelly brand of cinematic vulgarity fool you—beside a couple of threesome jokes and a crotch-sniffing dog there’s no semen dangling from earlobes a la There’s Something About Mary; there’s no Gwyneth Paltrow on a diving board in a fat-suit. I suppose that last bit is progress! If only that didn’t mean everything is sanded down to a feel-good sheen that feels utterly stakes-less, without a whiff of tension to be had.

Remaking the 2018 Goya-winning Spanish film Campeones (which was at least based on a true story), Harrelson is here playing a minor league coach named Marcus who dreams of the NBA but can’t quite seem to stop shoving people around instead. He’s just so passionate about the game! And I mean, who isn’t? People running back and forth on a small court for several hours—that’s riveting stuff. So after one shove too many, Marcus drowns his sorrows in some booze, and before you know it he’s been court-ordered to spend three months coaching the “Friends,” a not-great gang of Special Olympics athletes. (Yes the plot of this movie is basically George Costanza’s sitcom pitch about a man being sentenced to butlering.)

A couple of the Friends team-mates stand out—there’s star player Darius (Joshua Felder), who refuses to play for Marcus for reasons that will be uncovered in the third act when the script decides Marcus should maybe finally actually ask Darius what’s up. And then there’s Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), the shower-hating brother of our movie’s love interest Alex. Alex is played by the always welcome Kaitlin Olson, who no doubt relished the chance to play someone a little softer than Dee, the Big-Bird-sized maniac she’s given hilarious life to for forty-seven seasons of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And yet this movie really needed some Dee! Some of Dee’s edge! Or any edge, please!

Because otherwise the rest of the team is known to us via a couple of quirks that stand in for character. There’s the horny one (he’s the one who talks threesomes) and there’s the girl one (she’s got sass) and the one who refuses to shoot the basketball any way except backwards over his head. And if you didn’t just write the ending of this movie in your head reading that, then congratulations—this movie has so, so many surprises in store for you. Just so, so many. I can’t even count them, the number is so, so infinitesimal. That has infinite in it, right?

Champions does in its way feel like the culmination of the Sport Movie ethos, though—it has built right into its DNA the absolute inability to not root for this group of people from its start. They’re all so happy, so decent, so trademark lovable. It would be unthinkable not to immediately adore these players, the movie posits, just by virtue of their existence. And so Champions is never inclined to strain to define any of them much beyond that. This is to say that the only person allowed any depth, any faults, any humanity, is Harrelson’s pitiable bastard person, and he is there to learn the lesson that all of that nasty individuality is futile. Become the team, or else. Point, score, circle back, do over, just before the buzzer, repeat. And the crowd, always the crowd, goes wild.