Champions – Film Review
by Fran Winston
Directed by: Bobby Farrelly
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Ernie Hudson, Cheech Marin, Madison Tevlin, Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci, Ashton Gunning
In cinemas on March 10th
It’s hard not to root for a film that celebrates the underdog and historically Farrelly’s movies do this extremely well. However, he usually has his brother Peter by his side as he directs. As a duo, they are behind some of the most irreverent but also thought-provoking comedies of recent years such as Dumb and Dumber, Shallow Hal, Me, Myself and Irene and There’s Something About Mary.
For his debut solo outing, Farrelly has cast a previous collaborator Woody Harrelson as Marcus, a temperamental minor-league basketball coach. When he finds himself convicted of drunk driving, he is given the option of jail or 90 days of community service coaching a team of players with intellectual disabilities known as The Friends.
Initially, he sees this as demeaning and begrudgingly tries to simply get through his sentence and get back to his life. But the team soon grow on him, and he becomes one of their biggest advocates. He also develops a relationship with Alex (Olsen) the sister of one of his players Johnny (Iannucci).
The team improve sufficiently that they find themselves in the running for a spot in the Special Olympics, but one player Darius (Felder) refuses to have anything to do with Marcus despite being a promising player. As Marcus tries to get through to him they eventually talk and their interaction where Darius explains why he won’t play for him makes for one of the most touching moments in the movie.
Farrelly and his brother have always cast disabled actors in supporting roles in their movies wanting to give them greater visibility and remove stigmas so this movie doesn’t feel like an unusual choice for him to direct. Nor does it feel like tokenism. All The Friends have fully rounded characters and are given their chance to shine. Indeed, many of them manage to upstage veteran actor Harrelson. Particularly Tevlin as Consentino whose comic timing is superb.
While some people may look at this premise on paper and think it is virtue signalling, it is far from that. The underdog team story has been done before, as has the bad boy redemption story. They are tropes that work. In this case, the story just happens to feature people that have special needs.
Farrelly doesn’t take any chances. He knows what he does well, and he doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. He does manage to throw in a few surprises to keep the audience on their toes but overall this is pretty safe.
Unfortunately, at times the story of The Friends does get overshadowed by Marcus’ journey and his relationship with Alex, but this is a minor quibble. It would take a hard heart not to leave this film with a smile on your face.
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