Review- Champions Spotlights Disabled Actors

There are some good reasons to be nostalgic for the late 1990s to early 2000s, and the movies made by the Farrelly Brothers constitute one of them. Though they’re best known for the gross-out jokes in movies like Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, the real trademark of the films made by Peter and Bobby Farrelly is their sweetness, and their eagerness—sometimes misguided but never mean-spirited—to make sure every character is treated as a multidimensional human being. Some—like the cartoonishly grouchy guy, in There’s Something About Mary, whose wheelchair bears the bumper sticker “How’s my driving? Call 1-800-eat-shit”—are more irritable than virtuous, but that’s precisely the point: a disability isn’t the same as a personality. And as far as the much-maligned Shallow Hal goes, most people seem to have forgotten about the character of Walt, written by the Farrellys for a man they met in a New England bar, Rene Kirby, who was born with spina bifida. Walt is a rich, handsome, charming software mogul, and as Kirby plays him, he’s one of the most captivating characters in the movie.

With Champions, director Bobby Farrelly returns us to the late 1990s, a time when there were fewer sorely needed guidelines, but also fewer gatekeepers just waiting to catch well-meaning people who happen to trip up. Champions is a reworked version of the 2018 Spanish film Campeones, which itself was inspired by the true story of a hotshot basketball team from Valencia, made up of intellectually disabled individuals. (The Champions script is by Mark Rizzo, riffing on the original by Javier Fesser and David Marqués.) Woody Harrelson stars as Marcus, a shallow and deeply unlikable assistant basketball coach, employed by an Iowa minor-league team. After getting caught driving while drunk, he’s sentenced to 90 days of community service—specifically, coaching a crew of disabled basketball players known as the Friends. It’s the last thing he’d ever do if left to his own devices.

Predictably, Marcus is at first appalled by the team’s playing capabilities, or lack thereof: There’s Showtime (Bradley Edens), who’s got all the right victory-dance moves even though has no idea what to do with the ball; Craig (Matthew Von Der Ahe), who’s preoccupied with bragging about his multiple girlfriends; and Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), who might be a decent player, but whose fears get the better of him—in particular, he’s terrified of water, which means he refuses to shower after practice, or, for that matter, ever. But this 10-player team isn’t particularly impressed with Marcus, either. They eye him with suspicion, or simply refuse to cooperate. The player who’s hailed by the others as the best on the team, Darius (Joshua Felder), stalks off the court shortly after Marcus shows up, refusing to play for him—his reasons are revealed later in the movie.

Marcus goes through the motions of making the best of the situation, only to realize he truly likes these guys. Champions heads pretty much exactly where you think it’s going to go—it does follow the classic underdog-champion template after all—and it also includes the requisite romance: Kaitlin Olson plays Alex, Johnny’s older and very protective sister, a straight-talking wisecracker who reluctantly takes up with Marcus, only to realize she’s falling for him (and the feeling is mutual). As appealing as Olson is, the romance is Champions’ weakest element. And if you miss the trademark Farrelly gross-outs, there is an instance of projectile vomiting to look forward to.

Review- Champions Spotlights Disabled Actors

But it’s much more fun just to spend time with the players, and to watch Marcus riff with them. All of the Friends are played by disabled performers, many of whom have never acted before. Yet they’re all naturals—they know how to get laughs, and they relish it. The team’s savior, a firecracker of a player named Cosentino (Madison Tevlin), struts into the movie like she owns it. The other players are overjoyed at seeing her, calling out her name, but with a withering glance she sets Marcus straight right away: “It’s Ms. Cosentino to you.” Her timing is as sharp as Harrelson’s—maybe sharper.

All of that said, Champions is a movie that’s out of step with where we’re at these days, at least in terms of mainstream comedy (whatever that is anymore). It’s tempting to look at a comedy like Champions and roll our eyes, figuring that by now everyone knows that disabled people are individuals with distinct personalities. Of course—but then, why don’t we see more of them in the movies, as characters and as actors? In that sense, Champions is a forward-thinking film masquerading as a deeply conventional one. We can say we’ve seen it all before—but when, and where? We’re so busy being progressive—and pointing our fingers at people who, we’ve decided, are not—that we’re stuck in a rut, having lost sight of the fact that to progress means to move forward. Champions, at least, is trying to do just that, keeping the ball moving every minute. That’s harder than it looks—and a lot harder than calling the shots from the sidelines.

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