A cornball speech helped me get on board Woody Harrelson’s new movie


(M) 124 minutes

Sadly, at this point, it’s looking like we won’t be getting any more of the imaginative bad taste comedies that brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly specialised in for many years, where half the joke lay in taking an obviously unworkable premise and daring the audience to go with it.

The cast of Champions are (from left) Kevin Iannucci, Kaitlin Olson, James Day Keith, Madison Tevlin, Cheech Marin and Woody Harrelson.

This is the approach that brought us 2005’s The Ringer, starring Johnny Knoxville as a slacker who pretends to be developmentally disabled, so he can triumph at the Special Olympics. Officially the Farrellys only produced that one rather than writing or directing, but there was no mistaking their distinctive touch.

Champions, Bobby Farrelly’s first solo feature as director, tackles similar themes from a less provocative angle. Truth be told, it has only a fraction of the comic verve of the Farrellys at their best, but it retains the underlying goodwill that was their secret weapon all along.

Adapted from a 2018 Spanish film – the screenplay is credited to Mark Rizzo – Champions introduces us to Marcus Marakovich (Woody Harrelson), an extremely minor-league basketball coach whose career has stalled due to alcohol and anger issues.

Convicted for drunk driving, he’s sentenced to 90 days of community service as coach of the Friends, a Des Moines basketball team made up of intellectually disabled players.

By design, Champions is very much like every underdog sports comedy you’ve ever seen, with one big difference: it’s rare to see a film of any kind that gives scope to the talents of so many intellectually disabled actors (Madison Tevlin as Conseula, the sole female Friend, is a standout).

The other half of the ensemble consists of old pros such as Ernie Hudson and Cheech Marin, with Kaitlin Olson as Marcus’ acerbic love interest (we know they’re right for each other because after their initial one-night stand, they’re already sparring like an old married couple).

The relaxed hang-out vibe extends to Harrelson’s performance: Marcus comes off as cranky yet lovable – or whatever transformation from jerk to nice guy is called for, in theory, by the plot.

Woody Harrelson, pictured with Kaitlin Olson, will win you over in Champions.

The point about Champions is that Bobby Farrelly knows his business, which includes knowing when he can safely tug on our heartstrings and when it’s necessary to liven things up with, say, a well-timed bit of projectile vomiting.

He’s also not afraid to hinge part of the climax on a string of allusions to The Winter’s Tale, harking back to the Truman Capote one-man show in the Farrellys’ immortal Stuck On You.

Thanks to all this, when Marcus gets around to his big, cornball speech about what really makes a champion – the kind of speech he was mocking within the film’s first five minutes – I, for one, was fully on board.

Champions is in cinemas from March 9.

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