Woody Harrelson Guides a Basketball Team in ‘Champions’

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HollywoodChicago.com Oscarman rating: 3.5/5.0
Rating: 3.5/5.0

CHICAGO – “Champions” is a predictable and formulaic, but it’s ultimately a good natured trip into a world of sports comedy clichés. It’s never particularly laugh out loud funny, but its heart is in the right place, which makes it hard to root against the film.

Woody Harrelson is Marcus, a minor league assistant basketball coach who lost his shot at the big time and is now toiling in Des Moines, Iowa. After an altercation with his head coach, and a drunk driving arrest he’s fired from the team and ordered to do community service by coaching a rec center team called the “Friends,” full of players with intellectual disabilities played by real actors with intellectual disabilities, some of whom are part of the well regarded national “Best Buddies” program.

Photo credit: Focus Features>

There’s Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), who works at an animal shelter, and refuses to bathe. Sheldon is a living encyclopedia prone to spouting random facts at odd intervals.“Showtime” has the swagger of a baller, but only shoots behind the back half court shots. All of these players go out of their way to show they can handle themselves … they all have jobs, friends, personalities, and even sex lives.

That last point is something the film seems to think is a source of endless laughs, with plenty of penis jokes. But it’s important to note that the movie wants us to laugh with them and not at them … they’re not sources of pity, but can be part of good comic set pieces. That’s something director Bobby Farrelly has been stressing going back to the Farrelly Brothers heyday (“There’s Something About Mary,” “Shallow Hal”) since the mid 1990s. And that sense of inclusion counts for something, even if it doesn’t tickle your funny bone as often as it would like.

Taking cues from everything from “The Mighty Ducks” to “Major League,” our gruff-but-benign coach at first seems disparaging about the whole enterprise in trying to turn this ragtag collection into a team. No points if you guess that he eventually comes around, and so do they. This leads up to a big game at the Special Olympics regional finals in Canada that promises to give the players a chance to feel like champions, and Harrelson a chance to catch the attention of NBA scouts for a trip back to the big show.

Woody Harrelson and the Friends are ‘Champions’
Photo credit: Focus Features

The coach with a grumpy-exterior-but-ultimately-warm-heart fits Woody Harrelson like a glove, and he manages to enliven the predictable material with some off kilter line readings. “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” star Kaitlin Olson provides some solid support as the sister of one of the players … who also serves as the grumpy coach’s love interest of mutual convenience. Cheech Marin mostly shows up to talk about how the program is broke, and to cheer on the team.

I didn’t laugh a lot during Champions, but I did smile. The film succeeds as an agreeable time killer that will serve to reasonably entertain those who see it. This underdog story has absolutely no surprises, but its message of inclusivity still kind of shines through.

“Champions” opens everywhere on March 10th. Featuring Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olsen, Ernie Hudson, Kevin Iannucci and Cheech Marin. Screenplay adapted by Mark Rizzo. Directed by Bobby Farrelly. Rated “PG-13”

HollywoodChicago.com contributor Spike Walters


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