While Peter Farrelly was off winning Oscars for “Green Book,” younger brother Bobby has been largely absent from feature directing. It’s been nearly a decade since the siblings shared credit — the last time being 2014’s “Dumb and Dumber To.” Now, rather than competing with Peter at the respectability game, Bobby sticks to what he knows with “Champions,” in which Woody Harrelson plays a minor-league basketball coach court-ordered to assist a Special Olympics team for 90 days — just long enough to take the team from bumbling incompetents to national finalists.
There are zero surprises in “Champions,” unless you count the not-inconsiderable shock that such a movie exists at all. A remake of 2018 Spanish box office sensation “Campeones,” this awkward (if presumably well-intentioned) comedy might have felt enlightened 25 years ago — back when “Forrest Gump” was an Oscar favorite — but today makes for a patronizing portrayal of people with intellectual disabilities. That’s still better than no portrayal at all, I suppose, and there’s some satisfaction to be had in watching Harrelson’s character overcome his prejudices — reflected by using the word that starts with “R” — and grow to see these amateur athletes for more than their limitations. But did the film (little more than a “Role Models” redux) have to paint its players as such clownish characters from the outset?
To his credit, Farrelly has been making room for characters with differences and disabilities his entire career, encouraging audiences to laugh with (rather than at) everything from Cameron Diaz’s “sensitive to touch” brother in “There’s Something About Mary” to practically the entire cast of “The Ringer,” which he produced. Farrelly doesn’t operate by the “politically correct” playbook (“Shallow Hal” anyone?), but he is committed to reminding audiences that most of the population doesn’t look and act like movie stars.
It really ought to go without saying — but still bears repeating, since Hollywood so often ignores this point — that excluding any population gives the false impression that the real world resembles the filtered version we see on-screen. For people with disabilities, invisibility means that general audiences aren’t exposed to the kind of behavior that makes them uneasy in the real world. “Champions” leans into the comedic potential of that discomfort, presenting “the Friends” (the misfit team Harrelson’s Marcus is ordered to assist) as an assortment of klutzes — the kind of broad, dorky stereotypes you’d expect from a film like “Revenge of the Nerds” — to whom good-sport Harrelson plays glorified babysitter.
Marlon (Casey Metcalfe) wears a padded helmet and thick glasses, speaks several languages and quotes obscure trivia on command. Showtime (Bradley Edens) knows just one shot, which involves lobbing the ball high over his head, but he rarely comes within 10 feet of the basket. Johnny (Kevin Iannucci) has Down syndrome and a resistance to showering; he also has a hot older sister, Alex (Kaitlin Olson), whom Marcus hooks up with in the opening scene. With the exception of wild-gal Cosentino (Madison Tevlin), they’re all dudes.
When Marcus takes the job, the players can hardly dribble, cringing anytime a ball’s thrown at them. By the end of the season, they play like the Harlem Globetrotters. But as gym manager Julio (Cheech Marin) explains, the Friends have been let down before, coached and abandoned by someone who wasn’t genuinely committed to the task.
As punishment for crashing into a cop car while drunk, Marcus has been ordered to do community service, but he doesn’t have any intention of volunteering a day more than the obligatory 90. No prizes for predicting how his attitude changes over those three months. At first, Marcus sees the team as hopeless, and who can blame him, given all the slapstick shtick Farrelly puts them through? But then the games start, and the Friends start winning.
Next thing we know, the team has been invited to the Special Olympics championship in Winnipeg, Marcus has been invited over for meatloaf dinner at Johnny and Alex’s house, and the NBA has invited Marcus to take a professional coaching gig that would tear him away from the Friends. It all plays out quite predictably, with one possible exception, depending on what you make of the “Hoosiers” reference early on.
Had it come out three decades earlier, “Champions” would have almost certainly been the feel-good film of 1993. Today, it’s an oddly dated opportunity for disabled actors with real-world hoop skills to play silly caricatures of themselves — which is where the Farrelly oeuvre and certain other films, like “How’s Your News?,” have innovated before, reminding audiences that differences can be funny, and it’s OK to laugh. Here, the performances come with certain limitations (the line readings sound memorized, never spontaneous), but as a whole, the movie makes memorable, three-dimensional characters of its players, and that’s a start.