thu 18/04/2024

Champions review - Woody Harrelson's latest hoop dream | reviews, news & interviews

Champions review - Woody Harrelson's latest hoop dream

Champions review - Woody Harrelson's latest hoop dream

Basketball comedy delivers despite a clunky script

Having a ball: Woody Harrelson with, from left, Kevin Iannucci, Kaitlin Olson and James Day KeithShauna Townley/Focus Features

In the sports comedy Champions Marcus and Marokovich (Woody Harrelson) is a basketball coach in the lowly G League. He has ambitions to coach in the major leagues, but a sight of his highly flammable temper is normally enough to conclude that such dreams are likely to remain unfulfilled.

When facing sentencing in a criminal court for driving into the back of a police car while drunk, Marcus is given a stark – and rather obviously contrived – choice. Would he, the judge asks, prefer to spend 18 months in prison or opt to play the only get-out-of-jail card he'll be offered, and just do 90 days of community service?

He chooses the latter course and soon finds out that players he must now coach all have Downs Syndrome or other Intellectual Disabilities. They are known as "The Friends".

The initiative to make this film and the energy to see it through came from Harrelson himself. Basketball has become something of a fixture in the Harrelson filmography, which also includes the rapid-fire wit of White Men Can't Jump (1992), and the Will Ferrell-ishness of Semi-Pro (2008).

It was Harrelson who approached Bobby Farrelly to direct Champions, a relatively rare solo outing without elder brother Pete involved. The film is an American remake of the 2018 Spanish film Campeones, which was based on the real-life story of Aderes Burjassot, a coach from Valencia.

Screenwriter Mark Rizzo wanted Champions to have the feeling of being set somewhere nondescript in Middle America. Des Moines, Iowa, stands in for that place, though the actual filming was done in freezing Winnipeg.

An open casting call was sent out all over the US and Canada to find 10 young people with intellectual disabilities who had actual experience and knowledge of basketball. Perhaps the biggest of the positive surprises about The Friends is how believable these actors are, and how easy to empathise with are their characters. They demonstrate great comic timing.

Farrelly says they were encouraged to depart from the script and to "lean in" to how they would actually react in particular situations in their own real lives.

All of them are good, but the stand-out performance comes from Kevin Iannucci as Johnathan, or Johhny, the brother of Alex, whose developing relationship with Marcus is one of the main plot strands. There's terrific comic chemistry between Kaitlin Olson, who plays Alex, and Harrelson.The message of Champions is plain: the viewer is expected to see through disabilities and appreciate the people. The head of the community centre Julio (a good role for Cheech Marin), gives that perspective clearly and well. (Pictured above: Woody Harrelson)

The problems are in the clunky writing, probably not helped by the project's evolution from Spanish fact to Spanish fiction and then to American fiction. The unfolding of the story, and in particular the journey of Marcus from emotional zombie to unconflicted good guy, is trickier. Harrelson keeps us guessing how far the character is along his conversion.

Sadly, the film's credibility is marred by scenes like the frankly silly one near the end in whIch Alex and Marcus impersonate law officers in order to blackmail an unscrupulous restaurant owner into giving them money for their cause.

Some commentators have complained that Champions lacks the wild humour of the comedies that made the Farrellys’ reputation, notably Dumb and Dumber (1994) and There's Something About Mary (1998). That's a little unjust: mirth these days simply can't be as unguarded as it was in the 1990s. If one accepts the world is a different place, champion laughs are easy enough to come by.

@sebscotney

Mirth these days simply can’t be as unguarded as it was in the 1990s

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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