‘Champions’ Review: A Lot of Heart, but Little Laughs

Just because a film is feel-good, doesn’t make it good-good!

“Champions” is a remake of the Spanish film of the same name, and stars Woody Harrelson as a disgraced minor league basketball coach who is court-ordered to run a team of players with intellectual disabilities. Kaitlin Olson, Ernie Hudson and Cheech Marin also star, while Bobby Farrelly makes his solo directorial debut.

We’ve seen this film plenty of times before. Whether it was with Martin Lawrence in 2005’s “Rebound” or Ben Affleck in “The Way Back” (most notable for being one of the final films released before theaters closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic), the “down on his luck coach must make winners out of a gang of misfits” is one of the most tried and true sports movie formulas. “Champions” doesn’t make a single effort to break out of the guidelines set forth by its predecessors, and while there are a few chuckles and appreciated bits of representation, the film itself is a bit of a slog.

Woody Harrelson is a good actor, and a charming one at that. He’s been dramatic before, but I think I like him most when he is being his normal goofy self (“Friends with Benefits,” “Triangle of Sadness,” and “The Edge of Seventeen”). Here, Harrelson isn’t asked to do much flexing of his acting muscles, mostly operating as the “well-meaning but hard-headed” coach. I think the role could have benefitted from him being more reluctant to coach the team of adults with disabilities, or had some sort of personal demons to be working through (the one he seemingly has is resolved in a single scene), because while either of those would have been cliché it would give some depth to an otherwise pretty straightforward character.

The cast of adults with intellectual disabilities are all solid, with a few of them having solid comedic timing, though I think the standout is Madison Tevlin. Tevlin has the best delivery of any of the players, and has a few good quips at Harrelson’s expense.

You don’t go into a film like “Champions” expecting high art (you’d even be asking a lot to be expecting another “Miracle” or “Hoosiers”). But you do expect to be entertained, and I just all too often found myself, not. Many of the jokes do not land, whether because of writing or delivery, and there is an uneven blend of raunchy, heart-warming, and slapstick humor (a common complaint of the Farrelly brothers).

The pacing is also pretty poor (the film is half montages, and awkwardly spliced ones at that), and what could’ve been a brisk, feel-good 90 minutes is stretched unbearably thin to 124. We get the same few plot points recycled throughout, while some character’s motivations and actions change suddenly, simply because the film needs conflict.
The only game that isn’t set over a musical montage is the climax matchup, which is edited together so haphazardly that you don’t get a sense of the timing or momentum of the game. I know it seems like I’m nitpicking, but when neither the sports nor the humor work in your sports comedy film, you’re in trouble.

“Champions” is charming and innocent enough, I wasn’t mad while watching it or writing this, but when a film is this blatantly familiar you need some extra style or energy from the direction to keep yourself engaged, and Bobby Farrelly has never been accused of being an auteur director. If you are a very undemanding filmgoer (sometimes I wish I was) then feel free to buy a ticket, but all others are fine catching the 11pm highlights.

Critics Rating: 4/10

Focus Features

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