Producers: Paul Books, Scott Niemeyer and Jeremy Plager Director: Bobby Farrelly Screenplay: Mark Rizzo Cast: Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Ernie Hudson, Cheech Marin, Matt Cook, Madison Tevlin, Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci, Ashton Gunning, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, James Day Keith, Alex Hintz, Casey Metcalfe, Bradley Edens, Barbara Pollard, Mike Smith, Sean Cullen, Scott Van Pelt, Jalen Rose and Alexandra Castillo Distributor: Focus Features
It’s a tired movie formula: a troubled coach is forced to take on a seemingly hopeless team and finds redemption by leading them to glory. Naturally the players are transformed as well. The formula is repeated for what seems the umpteenth time in this remake of Javier Fesser’s 2018 “Campeones,” which was a smash in Spain, loosely inspired by the remarkable record of a basketball squad composed of players with intellectual disabilities that won more than ten championships.
This Hollywood take on Fesser’s film, refashioned for American audiences by Mark Rizzo and Bobby Farrelly in his first solo feature outing, is fortunate to star Woody Harrelson, who makes a likable rogue of Marcus Markovich, an assistant coach at a G League NBA team in Des Moines. Marcus loses his job after he shoves head coach Phil Perretti (Ernie Hudson) in a courtside dispute over strategy that’s prominently featured on ESPN. Shortly afterward he’s arrested for DUI after plowing his car into a police cruiser while driving drunk. Though he doesn’t heed the advice of his court-appointed lawyer (Mike Smith) and talks out of turn, the judge (Alexandra Castillo) offers him an alternative to jail time—ninety days of community service coaching a team of young people with intellectual disabilities at a rec center run by jovial Julio (Cheech Marin).
The Friends, as the team is called, are played by actors with actual disabilities—Madison Tevlin, Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci, Ashton Gunning, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, James Day Keith, Alex Hintz, Casey Metcalfe and Bradley Edens—and though at first their peculiar foibles are exploited for laughs, that initial presentation of them is reflected through the perspective of Marcus, a distinctly unenlightened fellow whose manner and even vocabulary show no evidence of progressive ideas. It evolves into an increasingly appreciative attitude as his viewpoint develops—and we’re shown their work ethic off the court and the prejudice they must deal with from some nasty bosses, like the one who prevents Benny, played by Keith, from attending practices and games. (Naturally, that guy, played by Sean Cullen, will get his comeuppance and Benny his chance to shine.)
Each member of the group is given some individual qualities, but several stand out. Tall, lanky Showtime (Edens) knows only one shot: he stands at the free-throw line with his back facing the basket and hurls the ball over his head, invariably far off the mark. Consentino (Tevlin), the only girl, brings unusual items with her to practice and orders people about, telling off Markovich repeatedly. Bespectacled Marlon (Casey Metcalfe) is a savant who spits out facts with astonishing rapidity. Benny learns to stand up for himself. And then there’s Darius (Joshua Felder), easily the most physically talented of the group, who refuses to play for Marcus for reasons that are only gradually revealed.
The most gregarious of the bunch is certainly Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), who has Down Syndrome and aquaphobia, causing him to refuse to take showers until Marcus wilily intervenes. Johnny lives with his tart-tongued mother Dot (Barbara Pollard) and beautiful older sister Alex (Kaitlin Olson), with whom Marcus coincidentally shared a one-night stand that did not end amicably. A main subplot involves a romance that develops between Alex and Marcus, and a lesser one Marcus’ connection with Sonny (nerdy Matt Cook), an assistant G League coach he first tries to use to get back into the NBA and then recruits to serve as an aide in his work with the Friends.
Both of these plot threads get in the way of the story’s basic thrust (there’s really no attention to the actual transformation of the team, which moves from ineptitude to championship quality with very little in the way of training), and some elements in them—like Alex’s avocation as an actress who travels around in a converted RV giving Shakespeare performances to school groups—are pretty hard to swallow. It’s also impossible not to foresee where the script is heading, not only in terms of the team’s triumphant appearance in the Special Olympics trials (even though it comes with a few unexpected hiccups) but Marcus’ decision about his future at the close of the season, when he’s faced with a difficult choice that, thanks to Coach Perretti (and Drake University) has a predictably happy ending for all.
“Champions” wouldn’t be at all noteworthy if it weren’t for Harrelson and the Friends, but the other cast members contribute solid turns, with Olson making the most of her rather implausible character and Hudson, Cook, Pollard and even Marin adding nice touches. The result is a film that follows formula pretty shamelessly, but should satisfy audiences looking for an easygoing crowd-pleaser with a sports theme and an inspirational message.
The picture is given an appropriately grungy look by production designer Jean Carriere, costumer Maria Livingstone and cinematographer C. Kim Miles, while Julia Garces’ editing and Michael Franti’s score suit the unhurried style favored by Farrelly, who proves that he can do quite nicely absent his brother Peter (and is wise enough to give Harrelson ample opportunity to do his shtick).
Incidentally, the movie was actually shot in Canada, but the numerous establishing shots of a wintry Des Moines are not likely to make the Iowa city a tourist destination.