A veritable clutch of genre tropes vie for dominance in Champions, a winning feel gooder from Dumb and Dumber’s Bobby Farrelly. It’s a Dodgeball-esque underdog narrative, a will they/won’t they romance, redemption tale and sports comedy. No path followed here has not many times been well trodden before. That’s not to say the film fails to charm. A script by Mark Rizzo – adapted from Javier Fesser’s Spanish original: Campeones – delivers big on the belly laughs, even as it stumbles through inevitable pitfalls. The heart certainly leaves Champions several notches warmer.
It was Peter, rather than Bobby, Farrelly who took sole credit for the direction of Dumb and Dumber, the latter listed as producer and co-writer alone. Bobby joined as dual director for the film’s woeful 2014 sequel. It’s turning into something of a pattern for the brothers. Where Peter leads, Bobby follows. Indeed, Champions comes hot on the heels of Peter Farrelly’s Oscar winning Green Book and mirrors that film’s lightweight handling of hot and heavy discourse. Where Green Book righted the wrongs of mid-twentieth century racism, Champions sets upon tackling contemporary discrimination against those with intellectual disabilities. As might be expected from the man behind Shallow Hal, it’s sweet, well meant and a tad off balance.
Into Viggo Mortensen’s shoes steps Woody Harrelson, the ultimate everyman. Harrelson plays Marcus Marokovich, a talented basketball coach relegated to the lower leagues by virtue of his hot temper and aptitude for starting fights. In the words of head coach Phil (Ernie Hudson): ‘you were a prick and college and haven’t changed’. It’s when Marcus drunkenly read-ends an on duty cop car, however, that he finds himself well across the line. Faced with a lengthy jail term, Marcus accepts ninety-days community service as a more palatable punishment alternative. Tasked with coaching a basketball team for individuals with learning disabilities, Marcus only just holds back from spluttering the work ‘retard’. ‘If I can’t use the R-word, what do I call them?’ he manages in compromise. ‘May I suggest that you call them by their names’ comes the reply.
And here’s where Champions – not to mention Farrelly and Rizzo – comes into its own. Marcus’ new team – the Friends – is a splendidly cast ensemble, each one well rounded in characterisation and performed with exquisite commitment. Best of the bunch is Kevin Iannucci’s Johnny. He’s the self-proclaimed ‘homie with an extra chromie’, an animal devotee and brother to Kaitlin Olson’s more streetwise Alex, whom Marcus has already had the pleasure of one night standing with. Awkward. Madison Tevlin arrives midway through as no-nonsense Consentino, bringing much needed spike to the round edged comedy, while there’s a lovable turn from Bradley Edens, whose Showtime is known for his signature backwards launch move and after dance celebration. He’s yet to score, but ‘he’s due’. On the outskirts, Joshua Felder is strong as the highly capable Darius, whose refusal to play for Marcus – ‘nope’ – later gifts the film its beefiest punch.
Champions takes its merry time in giving the whole motley crew a thorough introduction and life beyond the crumbling rec. While each Friend boasts a comic peculiarity – a blisteringly funny rolling gag sees Casey Metcalfe’s Marlon take Marcus’ metaphorical enthusiasm for a particular manoeuvre literally: ‘did it give you an erection coach?’ – not one feels like a punch line. In part, this is owing to a sensitive and inclusive approach to the film’s direction and writing. More so, Champions benefits from a diverse cast who show no hesitation in holding their own against more seasoned and familiar stars.
Indeed, it’s when Champions slides away from the Friends’ narrative that things suffer. What an ill-judged decision it is to set up so wonderful an ensemble, only to bench them for much of the – rather overlong – run time in favour of Marcus’ hapless love life. A lack of focus an conviction too fails the film, in which so many nimble shots are framed without finding the slam dunk. One can’t truly challenge discrimination by kneeing offenders where the sun don’t shine or blackmailing your way to the big league. Neither outcome is half as satisfying as the film’s fist pump finale, which lands in spite of the opposition. Now that’s champion.