While Peter Farrelly was off winning Oscars for “Green Book,” Bobby, the younger sibling, has largely shied away from directing films. The last time the siblings shared credit was in 2014, over ten years ago. The last time was 2014’s “Dumb and Dumber To.”
Bobby now sticks to what he knows rather than competing with Peter in the respectability game “Champions, In this movie, Woody Harrelson plays a minor-league basketball coach who has been given a court order to work with a Special Olympics team for 90 days. This period is long enough to turn the squad from hopeless failures to national champions.
There are zero surprises in “Champions,” Unless you count the not-insignificant surprise that such a movie even exists. A reimagining of the 2018 Spanish box office hit “Campeones,” 25 years ago, when it first aired, this awkward (but ostensibly well-intentioned) comedy may have seemed progressive. “Forrest Gump” was an Oscar favorite, but it now dismissively portrays persons with intellectual disabilities.
That’s still better than no portrayal at all, I suppose, and there’s some satisfaction to be had in watching Harrelson’s character overcome his prejudices — reflected by using the word that starts with “R” — and grow to see these amateur athletes for more than their limitations. But did the film (little more than a “Role Models” redux) have to paint its players as such clownish characters from the outset?
Farrelly has, to his credit, always accommodated characters with quirks and infirmities, urging viewers to laugh with (rather than against) anything from Cameron Diaz’s “sensitive to touch” brother in “There’s Something About Mary” to practically the entire cast of “The Ringer,” which he produced. Farrelly doesn’t operate by the “politically correct” playbook (“Shallow Hal” anyone?), but he is committed to reminding audiences that most of the population doesn’t look and act like movie stars.
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As Hollywood so frequently overlooks this fact, it really ought to go without saying, but it still worth mentioning eliminating any population creates the false sense that the real world resembles the filtered version we see on film. Being invisible implies that mainstream audiences aren’t exposed to the kinds of behaviors that make persons with disabilities uncomfortable in the actual world.
“Champions” leans into the comedic potential of that discomfort, presenting “the Friends” (the misfit team Harrelson’s Marcus is ordered to assist) as an assortment of klutzes — the kind of broad, dorky stereotypes you’d expect from a film like “Revenge of the Nerds” — to whom good-sport Harrelson plays glorified babysitter.
Marlon (Casey Metcalfe) speaks multiple languages, sports thick glasses and a protective helmet, and often quotes strange anecdotes. Showtime (Bradley Edens) only knows how to make one shot, throwing the ball high over his head, but he hardly ever gets close to the basket (10 feet or less). With Down syndrome and a dislike of showering, Johnny (Kevin Iannucci) also has a hot older sister named Alex (Kaitlin Olson), whom Marcus hooks up within the first scene. They’re all guys, except the renegade Cosentino (Madison Tevlin).
When Marcus takes over, the players can hardly dribble and quake in fear whenever a ball is thrown in their direction. They begin to play like the Harlem Globetrotters by the end of the season. Nevertheless, as gym manager Julio (Cheech Marin) says, the Friends had previously been let down by coaches who weren’t sincere about the task.
The next thing we know, Marcus has been asked to Johnny and Alex’s house for meatloaf dinner, the team has been invited to the Special Olympics tournament in Winnipeg, and the NBA has invited Marcus to take a professional coaching position that would force him away from the Friends. Everything proceeds relatively predictably depending on your interpretation of the situation, with one possible exception depending on what you make of the “Hoosiers” reference early on.