Filmmaking duo and brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly have received more than their fair share of vitriol over the years for their particular brand of humor, one where no gag was ever deemed too stomach-churning or offensive if it meant a hearty laugh from its intended audience. Unsurprisingly, this ushered in an era of studio comedies that wore their lack of political correctness as a shiny badge of honor, one that could barely conceal the hatred that bubbled underneath, even as the Farrellys themselves rarely engaged in mean-spirited hijinks. Their hearts were always far too big for that, with the duo going out of their way to cast persons with physical and developmental disabilities in both bit parts and featured roles, steadfastly refusing to ever make them the butt of the joke. Even the fat-shaming of Shallow Hal ultimately dovetailed with a message of acceptance above all else, and perhaps that’s why the Farrellys have been maligned for so long — two guys who both wanted their cum-covered cake and to eat it, too.
It has been six years since the Brothers Farrelly parted ways. Peter went the Oscar bait route with Best Picture winner Green Book — a film far more offensive than anything in the duo’s arsenal of juvenalia — and Bobby’s finally having his day in the sun with new inspirational sports comedy Champions, in which a ragtag group of young adults compete in a regional basketball tournament for a spot in the Special Olympics. To find Bobby working in this particular narrative lane isn’t the least bit shocking, bringing to the foreground he always sought to, well, champion in previous features. What’s a tad more surprising is that he had nothing to do with the script itself, which comes courtesy of first-timer Mark Rizzo, who here adapts the 2018 Spanish-language film of the same name. (And to be brutally honest, both movies should be crediting the creators of Disney’s beloved 1992 hit The Mighty Ducks, which Champions copies beat-for-beat when it comes to plot). Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Woody Harrelson stars as Marcus, an arrogant athletic coach who, after receiving a DUI, is court-ordered to fulfill his community service by coaching a down-on-their-luck team in need of some guidance. At first appalled by the position — a seeming demotion to the NBA-aspiring Marcus if ever there was one — the selfish bastard soon befriends the eccentric members of his team and discovers the compassion inside himself that was long ago buried, falling for one of the player’s parental units — oops, this time it’s a sister, Alex (Kaitlin Olson) — in the process. Can he be redeemed by his young charges? Or will the unrelenting pull of a big-time job in prove his undoing?
So no, Champions doesn’t go anywhere the viewer hasn’t already traveled a thousand times before, but the same can be said for most films in this particular genre. It all comes down to the details, those small wrinkles that can thankfully distract from the well-worn bigger picture, and it helps immensely that Farrelly chose to cast actual persons with disabilities as the team’s core players, lending an authenticity that is sorely lacking from other films of this ilk. Much like 2008’s similarly themed comedy The Ringer, Champions paints its protagonists as both no-nonsense and the most capable people in the room at any given moment, their zeal and forthrightness a refreshing counterpoint to the self-absorbed jerk leading the team. It’s of course an obvious juxtaposition to operate on, but that doesn’t make it any less effective in execution.
Unfortunately, unlike The Ringer, which had edge to spare, Champions is as square as they come, its message of acceptance and tolerance welcomingly earnest, but packaged and delivered in the blandest way possible. The film also feels like a relic from another era, specifically the 1990s, with the movie at one point stopping dead in its tracks for literally five minutes so that co-star Cheech Marin can explain how persons with disabilities can lead rich and fulfilling lives — it’s a real yikes moment in an otherwise well-meaning project. And then we have the soundtrack, which is filled with such modern-day hits as Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping,” which is featured… twice. In fact, if it weren’t for the constant sex jokes, this would all work perfectly for the under-12 crowd, (though the film is being released into 2023 America, so there’s really no age limit for who needs lessons in decency). And therein lies the rub when it comes to Champions: the movie is so well-intentioned that criticizing it feels like kicking a puppy, but it also rarely rises above the level of patently mediocre. Harrelson and Olson are reliably great in their respective roles, no matter how two-dimensionally they are written, and plenty of viewers will leak a tear or two throughout, but if filmmakers could skip the end credits dance party next time out, which is always absolute proof of an utter lack of originality, we’d all win. In the meantime, for those keeping score, and despite Champion’s obvious limitations, it’s safe to say: Peter: 0, Bobby: 1.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 10.