From left to right, Kevin Iannucci, Kaitlin Olson, James Day Keith, Madison Tevlay, Cheech Marin and Woody Harrelson star in “Champions.” Photo courtesy of Focus Features
LOS ANGELES, March 7 (UPI) — The Farrelly Brothers always made it a point to cast disabled actors in their movies. Bobby Farrelly’s Champions, in theaters Friday, makes its disabled cast the stars in a positive, albeit predictable, sports movie.
Marcus Marakovich (Woody Harrelson) is a J League assistant basketball coach in Des Moines, Iowa. After he’s fired and arrested for a DUI, Marcus serves community service coaching the basketball team of the Friends Association for people with intellectual disabilities.
The formula, down to the community service as punishment for a DUI, is a familiar sports movie trope. Perhaps more interestingly, Champions isn’t necessarily about Marcus teaching the Friends how to become better players.
There is a Special Olympics regional final looming, but there’s no prize money mentioned or any community center at stake if they lose. The point is just that they get to play, and really that they get to star in a sports movie.
Based on the 2018 Spanish film Campeones, Champions gives each Friends player a rich character. Some emerge as more central to the plot than others, but the film makes a point to show each one off the court to convey that they have full, complete lives.
Johnny (Kevin Iannuci) ends up with more screen time because Marcus has a relationship with Johnny’s sister, Alex (Kaitlin Olson). Benny (James Day Keith) has a subplot about an ableist boss who mistreats him at work.
Darius (Joshua Felder) is the best player who refuses to play, so Marcus has to find a way to win him over. Craig (Matthew Von Der Ahe) has a healthy sex life, for which the other players trash talk him like in any other teen sex comedy.
The funniest character is Showtime (Bradley Edens), who has memorized NBA players’ showboating dances, even though he never makes a single basket. His showboating after air balls is the perfect running gag that gets funnier the more he does it.
The slapstick timing of a simple “your shoe’s untied” joke works. The humor never reaches the level of There’s Something About Mary, Kingpin, Dumb & Dumber or even Me, Myself & Irene, neither in outrageousness nor pure setup/payoff. But it’s likable enough.
Champions is definitely celebrating these characters, and the actors who play them. The jokes are at Marcus’ expense.
To the film’s credit, Champions treats Marcus’ DUI as dangerous behavior with consequences that must be corrected, more so than The Mighty Ducks. In Champions, it’s not just a plot device to force Marcus to coach the Friends.
Marcus does say the R word at first because he has to learn why it’s unacceptable. He’s not dismissive of the Friends, but he’s out of his element and learning how to communicate with people who process language differently.
Marcus never becomes the magical spokesperson for disabilities either. He still asks inappropriate questions and they set him straight.
There need to be far more films with an ensemble of disabled actors seamlessly incorporated into the plot so that movies like Champions won’t feel like special occasions. But Champions shows such films can be produced more frequently, in familiar, crowd-pleasing genres.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.
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