‘Champions’ Review: Following the Playbook

This film directed by Bobby Farrelly has elements that recall “Kingpin” and “There’s Something About Mary.” But the ratio of tastelessness to sentimentality has been reversed.

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By Ben Kenigsberg

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As “Dumb and Dumber” (1994) nears its 30th anniversary, its directors, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, have settled into what might regrettably be called a “mature phase.”

The sibling filmmakers, once the go-to guys for raunchy-sweet comedy in Hollywood, have been making movies separately of late. Peter Farrelly directed “Green Book” (2018), whose best picture Oscar ensured that it will live forever as an exemplar of the academy’s retrogressive taste. Now Bobby Farrelly has turned out his first solo feature, “Champions,” in which an ill-tempered basketball coach is court-ordered to supervise a team of intellectually disabled athletes.

It sounds, in outline, like material the Farrellys would have once treated with blithe irreverence. In “There’s Something About Mary” (1998), Matt Dillon’s character tried to impress Cameron Diaz’s by lying about exactly that kind of community service. And it stars Woody Harrelson, of the brothers’ “Kingpin” (1996). But this time, the ratio of tastelessness to sentimentality has been reversed.

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Harrelson plays Marcus, an assistant basketball coach in Des Moines. Marcus’s problem, as the head coach he’s worked for (Ernie Hudson) explains, is that he never gets to know his players as people. (“Are we living in ‘Hoosiers’ now?” Marcus asks him, in a lame acknowledgment of the kinds of clichés the movie knows it’s repeating.)

The protagonist’s drunken collision with a parked police car lands him in hot water with a judge (Alex Castillo) nicknamed Hanging Mary, who will let him avoid prison if he coaches the Friends, a Special Olympics team at a recreation center. Marcus initially thumbs his nose at the players, who all have trademark habits. Never showering. Always shooting backward from half-court. Knowing exactly what time a flight from Portland to Chicago should be flying overhead.

But while the Farrellys of three decades ago gleefully cut against the grain of political correctness, Bobby this time seems to have embraced it, making a celebration of sensitivity and empowerment that is kindhearted without ever risking touching a comic third rail. The dispiriting experience of watching “Champions” is slowly realizing that, notwithstanding an off-color line here or there (a player with Down syndrome introduces himself as “your homie with an extra chromie”), it’s exactly the sort of formulaic crowd-pleaser that just about anybody might have directed.

In fact, someone has: This is a remake of “Campeones,” a generally dire 2018 movie from Spain that won the top prize at the country’s Goya Awards but went unreleased theatrically here. The new screenplay, by Mark Rizzo, sticks closely to the original, though most of the changes (amping up the Marcus character’s mercenary careerism, revising a subplot about his love life) are improvements. The new version is certainly better-made and doesn’t gawk as cruelly at the Friends.

The best case for “Champions” is made by the actors who play them, especially Madison Tevlin as the brassy Cosentino, the team’s sole female player, and Kevin Iannucci as Johnny, the shower resister. Conveniently, Johnny turns out to be the brother of an actress (Kaitlin Olson) whom Harrelson, before getting his assignment, had previously hooked up with on Tinder.

If the romance thread gets the job done, Farrelly can’t do much with the sports movie tropes. Endless montages and near-random, what-decade-is-this? song choices (“Hey Ya!,” “Unbelievable”) chart the team’s progress. Marcus delivers a big-game locker room speech in which he tells the players that, win or lose, they are already champions, because of what they put up with every day. Depressingly, it’s not a joke.

Rated PG-13. Drunken driving, sexual innuendo. Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes. In theaters.

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