Champions is an underdog sports movie starring Woody Harrelson as a baseball coach forced to take on a team with intellectual disabilities. But the main thing you need to know is it is so formulaic I could have written it, you could have written it, it could have written itself. Heck, it’s so predictable it could have also directed itself — though, hopefully, it would never have been able to trash itself or I’d be out of a job.
Billed as a “hilarious and heart-warming comedy,” this is a remake of a Spanish film (Campeones, 2018). As it was Spain’s biggest box-office hit that year, I was hopeful it would offer something above and beyond, or at least something half-decent. Now I’ll never trust the Spanish again. The film is directed by Bobby Farrelly who, with his brother, Peter, has made several successful comedies — Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something about Mary. The stupidity of these films — which one could forgive because, to be fair, they were quite funny — is carried into this film, which doesn’t sit right at all.
Harrelson plays Marcus, an assistant coach for a minor-league baseball team who is arrogant and hot-headed and is fired when he has a disagreement with the head coach, whom he assaults. Having drowned his sorrows in a bar, he’s done for drink driving and when he appears in court the judge offers him two options: jail for eighteen months, or coach a baseball team whose members have developmental challenges. Pick your poison! (He’d have to do three months with the team, so three months of that equals eighteen months in prison? What were those who work with these people all the time facing? Life?)
Marcus definitely wants to avoid prison but it’s a tough one. “Are we talking retarded?” he asks the judge. Then it’s: “But if I can’t use the ‘r’ word, what do I call them?” Later, he will wonder if Down’s syndrome is what happens when you have a near-drowning experience as a child. And yet, yes, he is the one who will get to go on a redemptive journey and become a better person — as we know he will, this being a script that we could have knocked out ourselves.
The team are played by actors who all have some kind of disability. A few of their characters get back stories, like Benny (James Day Keith), who has Down’s syndrome and works in a restaurant for a bullying boss, or Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), who also has Down’s syndrome and wants to move out of the family home but doesn’t want to upset his overprotective sister. As becomes clear, however, these stories exist purely to service Marcus’s character. Johnny’s sister Alex (Kaitlin Olson) becomes Marcus’s love interest. (Olson is only fourteen years younger than Harrelson; not too bad.) Marcus will make the bullying boss pay. There’s also Darius (Joshua Felder), who, it turns out, incurred a brain injury after a drunk driver crashed into him, so Marcus has a big life lesson to learn there.
Farrelly goes in for cheap laughs, involving farts and vomit and BO, amid a narrative that is lame at every juncture. The bullying restaurateur storyline is so lame that even the film skips over it quickly. As the team heads towards the national Special Olympics basketball final, there is pep talk after pep talk — of the “you’re all champions” variety — while Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” (“I get knocked down, but I get up again”) plays on the soundtrack and further makes the message plain.
As for Harrelson, it feels as though he’s just going through the motions, and while I’ve already named some of the actors who make up the team, it feels right to ensure they are all included. So the others are: Cody (Ashton Gunning), Blair (Tom Sinclair), Arthur (Alex Hintz), Showtime (Bradley Edens), Craig (Matthew Von Der Ahe), Marlon (Casey Metcalfe) and Cosentino (Madison Tevlin). They are the best things in this film.
The screenplay, by the way, is by Mark Rizzo. But we could have written it ourselves. In our sleep.