Full-court press stumbles midstride
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In this well-meaning but underwhelming Winnipeg-shot sports dramedy, Woody Harrelson plays Marcus, an assistant coach for a minor-league basketball team in Des Moines, who explodes on court, loses his job, consoles himself by getting drunk and then unwisely tries to drive home.
Charged with a DUI, he’s offered a choice — in lieu of jail time, he can do 90 days of community service and coach the Friends, a basketball team of young adults with intellectual disabilities.
Bobby Farrelly directs this American adaptation of the 2018 Spanish movie Campeones. With his brother Peter, Farrelly used to make comedies that wrung jokes out of dissociative identity disorder (Me, Myself & Irene), conjoined twins (Stuck on You) and Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit (Shallow Hal).
Those were the days when cheerfully, deliberately offensive comedies often got a big box office payoff, but Farrelly is clearly trying to grow up here, and Champions aims to be respectful, even inspirational.
It helps that Champions goes for authentic disability representation with a gifted young cast. The team members’ individual personalities soon start to shine, on and off the court. We see them at their jobs, at home, doing carpool karaoke. Marlon (Casey Metcalfe) speaks four languages. Cosentino (Madison Tevlin) has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of snappy one-liners.
Unfortunately, these characters are still tied to a tired narrative trope, in which people with disabilities are there to bring about somebody else’s redemption, in this case to turn an immature, arrogant guy with anger issues into a decent man.
Harrelson’s scruffy, easygoing charm at least makes this emotional journey believable. He starts as a coach who knows the game — he has lots of charts with Xs and Os — but has no feel for the human factor. As the head of the community centre (Cheech Marin) explains, however, Marcus doesn’t need to get these players to the NBA. He just needs to make them feel like a team.
Outside of the gym, Marcus’s character-building project also gets a boost when he enters into a realistically adult, up-and-down romance with Alex (Kaitlin Olson from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), who’s the older sister of Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), one of Marcus’s star players.
Along with appealing performances, Champions offers some familiar pleasures for Winnipeggers. Some of the cast members are homegrown, and the setting has a real Winnipeggy vibe. There are a few landmarks — there’s a brief shot of the Legislative Building standing in for the Des Moines courthouse — and scenes set in the North End and the Exchange District. But mostly, our town is delivering the overall feel of a grey, midwinter midwestern city.
Then, in a funny twist that seems made just for us, we learn that the Friends are hoping to get to regional finals, which happen to be in Winnipeg. For the final stretch of the story, our city gets to play itself, and you’ll get glimpses of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the Thistle Curling Club, and the sign on the Trans-Canada indicating the longitudinal centre of Canada, which Marlon, a geography enthusiast, deems “even better than I expected.”
Farrelly occasionally defaults to his early 2000s settings, with fart jokes, projectile vomiting, and a bit of racy talk, but Champions doesn’t really deliver as a comedy.
The drama doesn’t quite work, either. At one point, when Marcus is still cynical, he declares he’s not going to be delivering rousing, Hoosiers-style speeches, referencing the 1986 Gene Hackman underdog basketball film. But Farrelly himself gives in to sports clichés that could have been generated by ChatGPT, and ultimately the movie’s moments of real emotional heart get overwhelmed by recycled clichés.
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Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.