A coach gets into trouble, suffers a career setback, and has to redeem himself — both professionally and personally — in an unusual environment. It’s a sports movie cliche as old as the peach basket… and the exact set-up of the latest effort in the genre: “Champions”.
Woody Harrelson plays Coach Marcus. He an assistant for an Iowa G League basketball team. Marcus shoves his own head coach (Ernie Hudson) during a game, and then is arrested for driving while intoxicated, after he runs into a cop car. A judge sentences Marcus to 90-days of community service, coaching a group of young adults with intellectual disabilities. As you can probably guess, he teaches them how to win on the court while the players teach Marcus how to win at life.
In the post-Farrelly Bros. days, we’ve seen Peter direct “Green Book” (to a Best Picture Oscar) and the underrated “The Greatest Beer Run Ever”. “Champions” marks the solo directorial debut of Bobby, who’s also the co-writer. And it reunites Harrelson with Farrelly, who co-directed him in the 1996 bowling comedy, “Kingpin”. This film doesn’t come close to the highs of that irreverent cult classic, thanks to the pedestrian premise, simple structure and (often) rough execution.
About 20-minutes in, Kaitlin Olson (who plays Alex, Marcus’ love interest) delivers the line, “It didn’t seem like it was going anywhere funny.” And that’s exactly what the first hour of “Champions” feels like. It’s dull and standard, without any genuine charm.
The second half is a bit more tolerable, thanks to the wholesome, honest work of the special needs actors. Farrelly honors the positivity and accomplishments of both the performers and their characters, never crossing the line into mocking or belittling them.
Harrelson is clearly having a good time. But you have to wonder what the purpose was for making this movie, if not to say something profound and meaningful (or, at least, funny). Instead, “Champions” provides very few laughs, very little drama, and shoots mostly air-balls with its less than inspiring underdog/redemption story.