By Noah Gittell
Sports movies are composed almost entirely of clichés. That’s why we love them. There’s nothing more satisfying than watching a team of underdogs and misfits put aside their differences and play like winners, only to lose the big game but learn invaluable life lessons. “Champions” follows the formula perfectly. There’s nary a surprising beat in it, but it succeeds where many others have also succeeded through its big heart, sturdy professionalism, and winning cast of unknown actors who leave a unique stamp on the film.
In his third basketball film to date (following “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Semi-Pro”), Woody Harrelson plays Marcus, an assistant coach on a developmental league team who gets fired after a courtside confrontation with his head coach (Ernie Hudson). Drowning his sorrows that night, he crashes into a police car and ends up in jail. The shockingly lenient judge sentences him to community service coaching a team of intellectually disabled players competing for a spot in the Special Olympics. An alcoholic ex-player being coerced into coaching a team of youngsters might sound ludicrous, but it has been the subject of so many films — “The Bad News Bears”, “The Mighty Ducks”, and about a hundred faith-based sports films — that we have no choice but to believe it could happen.
Director Bobby Farrelly is firmly in his lane here. Along with his brother Peter, he co-directed “Kingpin”, “There’s Something About Mary”, and “Dumb and Dumber”. They’re all funnier than “Champions”, but they sport the same no-frills, straightforward aesthetic that lets the heart and humor shine through. Farrelly also has used intellectually disabled actors before and has even been commended by the Special Olympics. In his films, he treats disabled characters not with kid gloves but with the gentle mockery of a big brother. There are plenty of laughs in “Champions,” but Farrelly gives his disabled actors the punchlines, instead of turning them into one.
The team in the film — they’re called the “Friends” — is composed of ten first-time film actors, each with a distinct personality and razor-sharp sense of humor. Madison Tevlin, playing the one woman on the team, gets the biggest laughs with her no-nonsense attitude towards her coach. When she calls a players-only meeting, Marcus tries to join, but she firmly rebuffs him: “Get away from me, or I’ll ‘me too’ you!”
As Johnny, Kevin Ianucci does the heaviest emotional lifting, conveying frustration and confusion when Marcus gets romantically involved with his older sister (Kaitlin Olson), a struggling Shakespearean actress. Bradley Edens earns his character’s nickname — Showtime —with his joyously silly dance after each shot attempt, regardless of his success.
Harrelson is in on the joke, too, offering himself up as a steady, consistent presence against which the offbeat cast can hurl their jokes. It’s good for comedy but prevents the film from reaching greater heights. Harrelson stays at such a steady pitch that his character’s arc is barely noticeable. He barely seems frustrated at his predicament coaching a non-professional team, and when he starts to connect with the players (and the team starts winning), he seems equally unmoved. “Champions” isn’t a character study, and there’s something fitting in a charismatic star’s willingness to cede the best material to a cast of actors who have long been marginalized onscreen and off. Still, a slightly more thoughtful approach to the character might have paid larger dividends.
Like a coach expertly utilizing his talent, Farrelly lets his players handle the ball. There’s something old-fashioned about the filmmaking. Farrelly mostly rejects the endless series of close-ups that define modern moviemaking (it’s for the alarmingly high number of people who watch movies on their phones). He shoots one early scene in an extended two-shot; just two characters talking, using their bodies, faces, and voices to express character and story. You know, like a real film. It’s a rare style of filmmaking these days, when it’s widely assumed that the audience will lose interest without a cut every two seconds. Farrelly deserves credit for letting the scene and the film breathe.
His real masterstroke, however, is his refusal to create a teachable moment from his subject matter. The one exception comes in the courthouse, when Marcus can’t figure out how to refer to his new players. He knows the one word he’s not allowed to use. “What do I even call them?” he asks the judge. “You could try calling them by their names,” she curtly replies. It’s the only time the film tilts towards the tenor of an afterschool special. Maybe once was necessary, but the film wisely never returns to that tone. Instead of looking for lessons, “Champions” looks for laughs and finds plenty.