Champions review: Woody Harrelson’s Special Olympics comedy is a self-righteous misfire

Champions review: Woody Harrelson’s Special Olympics comedy is a self-righteous misfire

One day, Hollywood will finally realise that marginalised people deserve to be at the centre of their own stories. Until then, we’ve got Champions – the latest film in which a bigot is patiently taught not to be a bigot by the very targets of his ignorance, while we’re all expected to stand up and applaud his bravery. It’s a sports comedy, directed by Bobby Farrelly, in which Woody Harrelson’s disgraced basketball coach Marcus is charged with community service after a drunk driving incident. For the next 90 days, he’ll head up a local team of intellectually disabled adults, with an eye to helping them land a spot at the Special Olympics.

With his brother Peter, Farrelly spent the 1990s and early 2000s making occasionally funny, largely offensive comedies like There’s Something About Mary (1998) and Me, Myself & Irene (2000). Champions, Bobby’s first solo project, exists at the mid-point between those gross-out ventures and whatever Peter was trying to do with his Viggo Mortensen/Mahershala Ali drama Green Book (2018) – also about a bigot who is patiently taught not to be a bigot by the very target of his ignorance. The latter went on to become the worst Best Picture winner in recent history.

Champions is an adaptation of a popular Spanish film, Campeones, from 2018. Like its predecessor, it’s also been heavily marketed around its inclusion of disabled actors – here the basketball team, nicknamed “The Friends”, are played by Kevin Iannucci, Joshua Felder, Madison Tevlin, Ashton Gunning, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, James Day Keith, Alex Hintz, Casey Metcalfe and Bradley Edens. But there’s a self-righteousness to Champions that feels entirely unearned.

This isn’t a film about “The Friends”, the communal spirit of their team, or what aspirations they might have about their own futures. This is about Marcus learning that the “r-word” is unacceptable, then wheeling around to punch the next guy he hears use it. This is about Harrelson’s pantomime look of shock when he’s told that these people “all live pretty full lives”, which leads to a condescending locker room speech all about the “bravery” of stoically shouldering ignorance. This, also, is about how the audience is meant to cheer on a guy with a documented history of violence (the film opens with an assault on his senior coach, played by Ernie Hudson) being put in charge of a group of individuals he seems to have an active disdain for.

When it comes to “The Friends”, there’s some great comic timing – Iannucci, Tevlin, and Metcalfe are particular stand-outs – but it’s hard to shake how frequently these jokes are written at their expense. There’s a running bit about how one of the players, Craig (Matthew Von Der Ahe), has a girlfriend. Is the joke here that we, as an audience, should laugh at the concept of a disabled person enjoying an active sex life? And why are all the matches scored to cutesy Vampire Weekend tracks, as if the team were at a middle school disco in 2008 and not competing for a place at one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events?

Kaitlin Olson, as the second lead, comes across far more favourably than Harrelson – a relief for the rabidly dedicated fanbase of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, no doubt thrilled about the sitcom star’s rare outing on the big screen. She plays Alex, one of Marcus’s old hook-ups, who turns out to be the sister of one of the players. She treats her brother like her brother, as opposed to an object of pity or ridicule, and the ways she’s come to depend on him mark the film’s only effective throughline. She’s also the one to tell Marcus that it’s “a little exploitative” to use the “feel-good” success of his new team as a path back to the NBA. Champions, of course, is doing exactly the same thing – the total lack of self-awareness about it is probably the only funny joke here.

Dir: Bobby Farrelly. Starring: Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, Madison Tevlin, Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci, Casey Metcalfe, Ernie Hudson. 12A, 124 minutes.

‘Champions’ is in cinemas from 9 March