Movie Review: Woody Harrelson coaches Special Needs ballers to be “Champions”

A dare stares the viewer dead in the eyes right from the outset of “Champions,” a long and formulaic basketball comedy starring Woody Harrelson and directed by his “Kingpins” partner, Bobby Farrelly.

As the film’s hook is that this team coached all the way into The Big Game is made up of young people on the special needs spectrum — players with brain injuries, Down Syndrome and autism — the dare is this.

Will the director of “Dumb and Dumber” and “Dumb and Dumber To,” the reviver of “The Three Stooges,” the fellow who gave us a one-armed bowler and who scripted Ben Stiller’s special hair styling needs in “There’s Something About Mary” actually go there?

Peter Farrelly (“Green Book”) is the sentimental half of the Farrelly Brothers. Bobby’s brand is more lowbrow, more theoretically dangerous, or at least more likely to lapse into “politically incorrect.”

So we’re all on the edge of our seats, waiting for our hot-headed, hard-drinking and just-fired NBA “J-League” coach (Harrelson) to say exactly the wrong thing when a judge sentences Marcus Marakovich to community service coaching the Des Moines “Friends,” 90 days of working with “adults with intellectual disabilities” and their Special Olympics level hoops team.

Marcus is such a meathead that it takes every word of courtroom finesse for him to talk his way around the “re” word he starts to blurt out, labeling those players a court has ordered him to coach. The “re” word isn’t “rewarding,” which of course is destined to be the moral of our story.

The scene is neither cringe-worthy nor particularly funny, which goes for this two hour trudge through a Mr. Uses-Everyone learns-some-empathy comedy. Marcus is sentenced to discover patience, sobriety, responsibility and understanding through an unruly nonet of sometimes funny but to-a-one thinly-sketched-in players.

It’s as if this half-hearted, ginger-steps comedy is also daring us not to like it, endorse it and praise for the “feels” it is tailor-made to deliver, but which it pretty much never does.

Harrelson comes as close to sleep-walking through this as he did his recent “Saturday Night Live” appearance. The “White Men Can’t Jump” star is a perfectly credible, too-long-in-the-minors assistant coach. But he’s fired for shoving his boss, the Des Moines Stallions’ head coach (Ernie Hudson), which was captured on video and makes “Sports Center,” and not in a good way. That scene seems contrived and half-hearted, and it’s hard for Harrelson to break that spell in a movie that isn’t a great showcase for him or most anybody else.

Marcus tries to work with the assortment of characters — the multi-lingual, autistic walking Wikipedia (Casey Metcalfe), the somewhat catatonic klutz who nicknamed himself “Showtime” (Bradley Edens), who shoots backwards, and rarely hits the backboard. But at least Showtime’s got the showboating “big ba–s” dance down.

Mouthy Miss Cosentino (Madison Tevlin) is all sass and “You do you, I do ME” backtalk. One guy has “two girlfriends” whom he can’t stop bragging about, another player (Joshua Felder) has a single word answer repeated whenever he’s asked whether he’ll play under this new coach.


The life of the party might be Johnny (Kevin Iannucci of “Best of Enemies”), “your homie with an extra chromie,” a Down Syndrome lad devoted to the team, his job working in the animal shelter and a fellow who could use some help mastering “the pick and roll.”

It turns out, he’s the younger brother of after-lunch Shakespeare in the Schools actress Alex (Kaitlin Olson of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”). She was a one-night-stand for Marcus before the night it all went sideways for him, somebody who picked up on his Xs and Os obsession at the expense of human interaction way before the courts did.

Pretty much every beat of this three-screenwriter adaptation of a Spanish comedy of a few years back feels pre-ordained — from the Big Obstacles to the Big Secret revealed to The Big Game and even who and what provides the Big Moment in the Big Game.

None of which would matter all that much if this thing ever found its funny bone. It lumbers along, under-edited and paced-to-put-us-to-sleep.

Are these the best takes Farrelly could get with everybody hitting their marks and getting through his or her lines? One wonders, because the games are so dully-shot and edited — few reaction shots and almost no close-ups and inserts of in-game action — it’s as if he’s covering for less skilled actors.

Harrelson is at ease and amusing in scenes with Olson, who gives the picture a little spark. Even Cheech Marin (as the rec center manager) feels wasted, and not in a fun way.

The messaging is rock solid and uplifting — “These guys are capable of a lot more than you think.” We see players picking up plays, and holding down jobs. And we get a load of “boo boo words” when every now and then, somebody flirts with or comes right out and uses the “r” word and pays a price for it.

This isn’t Farrelly’s first crack at special needs characters/Special Olympics athletes as a subject. Remember “The Ringer,” which the Farrellys produced? It had Johnny Knoxville playing a broke gambler trying to break even by “fixing” the Special Olympics. The controversy and failure of that one may be why “Special Olympics” is only mentioned once or twice in “Champions.”

But in taking a second swing at a comedy where the object is to make special needs characters funny, but not the object of fun, you’d figure that Farrelly might have had the nerve to dance closer to the edge, or at least find some big, warm laughs. And you’d think that Harrelson could have made this funnier in his sleep. Neither is the case.

Rating:  PG-13 for strong language and crude/sexual reference

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Kevin Iannucci, Madison Tevlin, Joshua Felder, Ashton Gunning, Casey Metcalfe, Bradley Edens, James Day Keith, Alex Hintz, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Ernie Hudson and Cheech Marin.

Credits: Directed by Bobby Farrelly, scripted by Mark Rizzo, Javier Fesser and David Marqués. A Focus Features release.

Running time: 2:03


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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