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Champions: Woody Harrelson Stars in Wholesome, Somewhat Cliche, Remake

(L to R) Kevin Iannucci as Johnathan, Kaitlin Olson as Alex, James Day Keith as Benny, and Woody Harrelson as Marcus in director Bobby Farrelly's CHAMPIONS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Shauna Townley/Focus Features

Champions preview screening provided by Universal Pictures

Champions is full of heart and uses its diverse cast expertly even if the jokes don’t always land”

If there’s one actor in Hollywood that could deliver a fitting, balanced performance about a passionate but unruly basketball coach being court ordered to coach differently-abled youths as part of his community service sentence, that actor is Woody Harrelson. He has the look of a committed basketball coach, but as soon as he speaks, there’s a sensitivity nestled beneath that rough exterior. It’s why it makes sense that he’s the lead of Bobby Farrelly’s Champions, a film about the above that is full of heart, even if the comedic beats don’t always land.

A remake of the 2018 Spanish film of the same name, Farrelly’s film about this disgruntled coach Marcus (Harrelson) learning how to see beyond the scoresheet by interacting with these players, makes for a wholesome viewing experience. It’s not the first film where a coach taking on something he deems lesser to his capabilities or who mistakes ego for passion is forced to take a step back —as seen in Mighty Ducks (1992), A League of Their Own (1992), The Bad News Bears (1976)— but it is a rare mainstream film comprised of a predominately differently-abled cast.

The ensemble, a team called the ‘Friends’, have seen their previous coaches walk out on them and they need some direction if they are to compete in the Special Olympics for basketball. For what it’s worth, they’re an entertaining bunch and all have unique quirks and moments that allow them to lean in to the humour Farrelly is going for.

(L to R) Casey Metcalfe as Marlon, James Day Keith as Benny, Woody Harrelson as Marcus, Ashton Gunning as Cody, and Tom Sinclair as Blair in director Bobby Farrelly's CHAMPIONS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Courtesy of Focus Features

(L to R) Casey Metcalfe as Marlon, James Day Keith as Benny, Woody Harrelson as Marcus, Ashton Gunning as Cody, and Tom Sinclair as Blair in director Bobby Farrelly’s CHAMPIONS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Courtesy of Focus Features

But it’s in Harrelson’s ability to guide our attention and allow the team to effortlessly play off of him, where the film is at its best. His natural likeability allows this film about overcoming the odds through teamwork, to keep the ball rolling, even at times where it feels like the story momentum is slipping.

The script, by contrast, is hardly extraordinary and much more boilerplate, most likely because the comedic one-liners never really land given the film toes the line between going that extra mile with a joke and then doubling-back or hesitating once it does. It’s clear that Farrelly tried to maintain some sensitivity around some of the language in the film to the point where, when something like the R word is said (there’s a few instances), it feels out of place (judging by gasps in the audience) not because it was said, but because the film steers you away from the humorous implications that more classic raunchy comedies might lean into.

Ultimately this affects the rest of the humour and makes one wonder whether it would have just made more sense to completely embrace a PG level telling instead. That’s not to say that the humour doesn’t have its moments, namely through some of the visual gags like a character vomiting on someone or Harrelson getting hit in the face by a ball.

At the end, this is a film about camaraderie more than it is about winning or delivering crude jokes, and it’s great to see a diverse cast used in a way that plays to their strengths, rather than against them. The ‘Friends’ needed someone they could trust and guide them, and Marcus needed a reminder that sometimes the wrong play might just be the right one.

Champions opens nationally from the 9th of March, 2023.

Contributors

Arnel Duracak

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