In Champions, Woody Harrelson returns to basketball comedy in the story of a disgraced coach who takes over a team of mentally handicapped ballers.
If you’re a frequent habituate of the inspirational sports movie tab on Disney+, you will find many, many movies that share elements with Champions.
There’s a disgraced coach who gets a DUI, just like Emilio Estevez in The Mighty Ducks. There’s a star player who’s staying away from the team for personal reasons, like Jimmy Chitwood in Hoosiers. There’s a team of underdog athletes who each get about one significant character trait apiece. There’s a side romance, and every beat of the movie’s basketball plot matches a couple of dozen movies we’ve all seen before.
The high concept of Champions, at least, is a new one. Woody Harrelson — returning to basketball movies more than 30 years after White Men Can’t Jump — plays Marcus, a hotheaded assistant coach in the G-League (called the “J-League” here for some reason.) He has dreams of coaching in the NBA but gets fired from his minor-league job for taking a swing at another coach during a game. Sure, the time Buddy Ryan did that in real life, it only added to his legend, but that was the exception.
Following a post-firing DUI, Marcus is sentenced to a different job as community service: He’s to coach a ragtag group of mentally handicapped young adults, at a community center, for 90 days. Some have Down’s Syndrome, others are neurodivergent, and some have suffered traumatic brain injuries.
At the same time, he has a romance with Alex (Kaitlin Olson, Sweet Dee from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), whose brother (Kevin Iannucci) has Down’s Syndrome and is on the team.
It’s all very unoriginal and at times even feels exploitative. But there’s a bit of charm here, and I was certainly rooting for these guys by the end.
Champions was directed by Bobby Farrelly. He’s the Farrelly brother who didn’t direct Green Book, which, if you ask me, is one of his more admirable qualities. But between them and the Coens, I’m wondering what’s going on with this trend of brotherly filmmaking duos going solo late in their careers.
The Farrellys often included mentally handicapped characters in their early films; in There’s Something About Mary, they even cast W. Earl Brown as the brother of a beautiful blond woman, in what may be the aspect of that 25-year-old movie that holds up the worst. Changing times have required, probably rightly, that those characters be played by those with actual intellectual disabilities.
Another odd thing about the movie is that it makes a massive deal out of being set in Des Moines, Iowa, to the point of mentioning it practically in every other scene before the characters travel to Winnipeg for the big game at the end.
So I was surprised to learn that the entire thing was filmed in Winnipeg, although I imagine they picked up Iowa’s capital with some second-unit shots. I also assumed the film must have been based, at least in part, on a true story, but it’s actually a remake of a Spanish film.
In those Winnipeg scenes, though, I liked that the movie was honest about how sparse the crowd would likely be for a Special Olympics basketball game played in the winter in Manitoba. Way too many sports movies overestimate just how big a crowd, say, a youth baseball or hockey movie is going to attract.
And finally, I’m still wondering why the story of Jason McElwain — the autistic team manager of a high school basketball team who got to play in one game at the end of the season in 2006 and made six three-pointers in one quarter — was never made into a movie.