Comedy wins out in Farrelly-led underdog film Champions, reviewed by Gemma Creagh.
Misanthropic low-level Basketball coach, Marcus (Woody Harrelson) is nothing if not by-the-numbers unlikeable in the film’s opening sequence. He negs his somewhat sardonic one night stand post coitus, despite Alex (Kaitlin Olson) being a woman well out of his league on her worst of days. He tackles his generous mentor and boss, head coach Phil Perretti (Ernie Hudson) to the ground, and finally, he ploughs his car straight into a police car – after drowning his sorrows in a considerable amount of liquor.
Narrowly escaping a custodial sentence, Marcus reluctantly finds himself in charge of coaching the “Friends,” a local basketball team of colourful characters with intellectual disabilities – for a court mandated 90 days. After a predictable amount of resistance from both parties – ranging from blunt comments right through to basketballs to the head – Markus starts to get through to the team. And as a result, he throws himself into the coaching, their performance improving as he bonds with the players, notably Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), who as luck would have it, is Alex’s brother, and Craig (Matthew Von Der Ahe), a young dishwasher being bullied in work. Darius (Joshua Felder), the team’s most talented athlete, refuses to play for Marcus. As the team gets closer to winning the regionals, an opportunity comes knocking for Markus. But will he abandon his new friends in their time of need?
For anyone familiar with the 2005 film The Ringer, there’s a striking set of comparisons between that Farrelly Brothers produced feature and this, Bobby Farrelly’s solo directorial debut. Toilet humour, simple writing, and a gang of lovable, foul-mouthed underdogs urged on by an initially unlikable protagonist (although one suspects the Johnny Knoxville led mid-noughties caper, might not hold up quite so well under the modern day PC lens). In this offering, however, despite the suggestive sass talk and innuendo, Farrelly’s leanings are altogether rather wholesome.
Champions as a narrative is based on an English-language remake of a 2018 Spanish film of the same name. The original “Championes” was based on a true story, written by Javier Fesser and David Marqués. Adere were an actual team led to victory in the Valencian Special Olympics by Marco Montes. Only a few plot elements have been updated in this adaptation. For a sports underdog film, the pacing is much slower than the format usually allows for, clocking in at longer than two hours, and mostly taking place in the icy landscape of Winnipeg, posing as Iowa.
The plot is simple. So much of the narrative is that bit too convenient – especially Marcus’s conflict-free personal arc, from selfish to dedicated in one handy sequence. Yet there is an authentic seeming chemistry and natural warmth behind the slow-burning romance between Alex and Markus. To fill the roles of the friends, Farrelly engaged in a nationwide casting search, and found ten actors which resulted in the comradery of the team. This is something that really paid off and that joking and jostling banter of friendship works well on screen. Even with such a large ensemble cast, the characters are established quickly, and the long-running, visual jokes pay off.
For anyone looking for something subtle or nuanced, look elsewhere, it’s still a Farrelly film. However, Champions takes a small story, in a small world and leans into the heart. This is a showcase for wonderful actors, many who you’d rarely see on screens, and give them the scope to be funny, crass, and stretch those comedy chops, giving unasked for sex tips, delivering crass one liners in the process.
Champions is in cinemas from 10th March 2023.