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Basketball comedy ‘Champions’ misses the shot

This Woody Harrelson starrer fouls out by infantalizing its heroes

From left, Kevin Iannucci, Kaitlin Olson, James Day Keith, Madison Tevlin, Cheech Marin, and Woody Harrelson in a scene from "Champions."Shauna Townley/Focus Features via AP

Allow me to describe the plot of director Bobby Farrelly’s “Champions.” Marcus (Woody Harrelson), an assistant coach with an anger management and a drinking problem, is forced to coach a team of disabled young people who hope to make it to the Special Olympics finals in Winnipeg, Canada. He gets this job after being fired for shoving Coach Phil (Ernie Hudson) on live television during a game, then getting into a car accident while drunk.

The Iowa judge in his DUI case gives him a choice: a prison term, or 90 days of community service. Obviously, Marcus takes the community service. Ninety days is not enough time to get the team to the finals, as gym manager Julio (Cheech Marin) points out, and it’s clear Marcus could care less if they do get there. Before agreeing to the terms, Marcus asks the judge “so what are they?” before dropping the r-word. It will not be the last time we hear that word.

Let’s pause here. Any judge who would entrust one person, let alone an entire team, to an angry guy whose DUI involved crashing into a parked police car should be disbarred. It shows she cares as little for these players as Marcus does, but her actions are meant to appear as though she has their best interests at heart.


That’s a great description of “Champions.” It’s yet another one of those movies that pretends to be about a marginalized group but uses that group solely to contribute to the growth of some selfish protagonist. Farrelly’s brother, Peter, used a Black man to this end in the egregious best picture winner, “Green Book” (2018). This movie plugs in several disabled people who christen their ragtag b-ball team “The Friends.” Clearly, this cinematic trait runs in the family, as does the use of irritating needle drops like “Tubthumping.”


The Friends are infantilized by Mark Rizzo’s script, based on the 2018 Spanish film “Campeones.” No one is given much character development, and the basketball court is frequently the site of unfunny or mean jokes made at their expense. For example, a character named Showtime (Bradley Edens) will only shoot while not facing the basket. He then does an obscene, comic celebration he calls “big balls.”

Of course, you know he’s going to do this during the big game, but we could have learned more about Showtime himself, and instead he’s reduced to a punch line. Despite giving good performances, the disabled actors who play The Friends are underserved.

From left, Matt Cook, Kaitlin Olson, Woody Harrelson, and Cheech Marin in "Champions." Focus Features

Another character, Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), never showers because he’s afraid of the water. He’s an animal lover whose fear, we later discover, stems from an incident where he almost drowned when he was young. “Champions” treats him like Pig-Pen from “Peanuts.” How Marcus finally gets him to take a shower involves a plan of trickery that treats Johnny as if he were a kid.

At least Johnny has something of a character arc. His sister is Marcus’s future love interest, Alex (Kaitlin Olson). She and Marcus meet in the film’s best scene, a post-coital interaction resulting from a Tinder date. Olson brings the sharp, tart, and funny line delivery she uses on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and she and Harrelson banter as if the movie were going to turn into a screwball comedy.


Their relationship subplot is threaded throughout “Champions.” Compared to The Friends, Marcus and Alex are the most fleshed-out characters; they get a dissertation of development while the true heroes of the film barely get a one-page essay.

Take Benny (James Day Keith), for example. He’s given a sliver of plot where he is mistreated by the restaurant owner who employs him as a dishwasher. The guy refused to give Benny time off so he can attend the basketball practices. Marcus tells him to stand up for himself.

We see Benny reciting the speech he plans to give to his boss. I eagerly awaited their confrontation, but it never comes. Making matters worse, it’s Marcus and Alex who are later shown standing up for Benny.

“Champions” wants to be a clone of the 1976 sports movie classic “The Bad News Bears,” right down to giving us a Tatum O’Neal-style toughie, Cosentino (Madison Tevlin). While Tevlin is very funny and convincing, Harrelson fails to plumb the depths of unlikability in his character that Walter Matthau brought to Coach Buttermaker.

Representation is important, so I would not begrudge anyone who watched “Champions” and felt seen. But I wish the film had been told from the perspective of The Friends, not Marcus. Movies like this one are afraid you won’t be able to connect to people who are not like you without a surrogate.



Directed by Bobby Farrelly. Written by Mark Rizzo, based on the film “Campeones” by Javier Fesser and David Marqués. Starring Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Madison Tevlin, Kevin Iannucci, James Day Keith, Bradley Edens, Cheech Marin, Ernie Hudson. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, and suburbs. PG-13 (rude humor, ruder language)


Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic. He can be reached at odie.henderson@globe.com.