Film & TV

Film Review: ‘Champions’: A Bit Exploitative but Pretty Harmless and Cute

BY Mark Jackson TIMEMarch 10, 2023 PRINT

PG-13 | 2h 3m | Comedy | March 10, 2023

On paper it sounds like a sure-fire, totally-politically-incorrect comedy hit: Woody Harrelson starring; a Farrelly brother (“Kingpin,” “There’s Something About Mary”) directing; and a basketball team worth of mentally challenged players.

Maybe a pre-woke American culture, plus an early Farrelly brothers (meaning raunchy and completely shameless) version would have been truly hysterical. Now, it’s amazing that such a concept even made it out the door of a Hollywood studio.

Here’s what you’re wanting to know: Is it funny? Hmm… It’s cute. It’s also of course somewhat cringe-y. But mostly it’s not a bad movie to take children to and say, “See? Those are mentally disabled people, they’re okay.” Except for the girl with Down’s Syndrome dropping an f-bomb.

10 mentaill disabled actors in CHAMPIONS
The Friends basketball team in “Champions.” (Focus Features)

I personally found that particularly jarring. Back in the days when I was prepping to be a psychologist, I camp counseled, did group home counseling for emotionally disturbed teens, and did a three-month stint working at what’s known as a “Camphill Village.”

Camphill Villages were founded by Rudolf Steiner who also founded Waldorf education and biodynamic agriculture. They’re villages that consist of about 10 to 15 houses, run by trained, parent-type adults who care for about 10 “villagers” or mentally challenged adults—a wholesome, holistic, non-institutional (expensive) alternative for parents with variously disabled/challenged adult children.

In my three months there, I evolved from being apprehensive, disgusted, and constantly irritated, to feeling like it was one big, hilarious family. To this day, when I see a person with Down’s Syndrome, I feel like I’m seeing an old friend.

My point being, these were some of the sweetest, innocent, unintentionally (and often, surprisingly, intentionally) hilarious, most pure-of-soul individuals I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in my lifetime. In fact, Steiner claimed that the mentally disabled are actually highly advanced beings who make a big sacrifice and choose a lifetime of suffering for the benefit of mankind, so that we might learn to be more compassionate. There was zero cursing at Camphill. So the f-bomb was jarring.


Head coach Phil Perretti (Ernie Hudson, L) and assistant coach Marcus (Woody Harrelson) in “Champions.” (Focus Features)

In “Champions,” Woody Harrelson plays Marcus, a former G-league, hot-headed, know-it-all assistant basketball coach who, after shoving the head coach (Ernie Hudson of “Ghostbusters”) on national TV during a game is court-ordered to coach a local team of players with intellectual disabilities, called “The Friends,” which is overseen by Julio (Cheech Marin, formerly of Cheech & Chong, the famous 1970s chronically potheaded comedy duo).

tow men on a porch in CHAMPIONS
Julio (Cheech Marin) and Marcus (Woody Harrelson), in “Champions.” (Focus Features)

The Friends consist of at least three Downs’ kids: a nasally, crash-helmet-wearing Rain Man kid who spews factoids and data and is pretty dang funny; a bossy girl with Downs; and a kid who appears mentally challenged as a birth defect, but who was in fact in a bad car accident and who flat-out refuses to play for Marcus. We find out why later.

Also, there’s a couple of tall, coke-bottle-eyeglasses-wearing types, one of whom enjoys shooting the ball standing with his back to the basket and lobbing the ball backwards over his head. This he accompanies with a victory dance signifying enhanced testicular endowment, when, in fact, in his entire history of backwards basketball lobbing, the ball has never gotten anywhere near the basket. What are the chances this particular shot will appear in the inevitable championship game?

Marcus starts coaching, and we take a little journey with him, going from apprehensive, disgusted, and constantly irritated, to feeling like the Friends are one big, hilarious family.

A basketball team and coach in CHAMPIONS
Marcus (Woody Harrelson), newly appointed coach of the Friends basketball team, and a few of his players in “Champions.” (Focus Features)


There’s a romance! A lonely, 40-something, Tinder-frequenting woman named Alex (Kaitlin Olson) who ends up in an extremely brief “fling” (like, one night) with Marcus, where they part ways with a plethora of snide, parting shots.

crowd scene in CHAMPIONS
Alex (Kaitlin Olson, center) cheers her brother in “Champions.” (Focus Features)

Turns out, of course, that she’s the sister of a Friend. An actress who performs Shakespeare for high school students during lunch break (can you imagine the futility of that?), she drives a Renaissance Faire-type hippie-van. And so, of course, she’s called to the rescue when the team gets ejected by a bus driver for talking too loud and projectile-puking on a passenger. The Friends are stranded in the hinterlands of Iowa! Or is it Minnesota? Somewhere cold. There’s snow. It’s a cute romance, although Woody doesn’t really go out of his way to sell it.

Will the Friends overcome their collective, massive chaos, and create a semblance of a basketball team? Maybe head towards a Special Olympics championship? What are the odds?

(L–R) Blair (Tom Sinclair), Johnny (Kevin Iannucci), Alex (Kaitlin Olson), Benny (James Day Keith), Cosentino (Madison Tevlin), Julio (Cheech Marin), and coach Marcus (Woody Harrelson) in “Champions.” (Focus Features)

Any Real Laughs?

It depends. Some people will find it across-the-board hysterical. I found a few things chuckle-worthy. What I really would have liked to have seen would be a less exploitative version using serious actors playing, as Ben Stiller terms it in “Tropic Thunder,” “full retard.” I found myself casting that movie in my head. Who do you like for that? I think we can all agree on Jim Carrey. I’d add Jack Black, Keegan Michael Key, Chris Elliott, Tracy Morgan, Dwayne Johnson, and, believe it or not, Tom Cruise. And for the female role, any of at least 15 former Saturday Night Live cast members, but particularly Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon, and Kate McKinnon.

Anyway, “Champions” is fairly wholesome and uplifting. You can’t go too wrong with it, even though some of it is sort of wrong. The ending in particular is wonderful; one of those time-honored comedic pre-and-during credit-roll endings where the entire cast gathers, more or less as themselves, and have a collective group dance to a fun song (in this case “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba), and participate in various shenanigans. It’s like the cast of “Bring it On” dancing to Toni Basil’s “Hey Mickey.” It’ll put a big smile on your face.

Movie poster for "Champions."
Movie poster for “Champions.” (Focus Features)

Director: Bobby Farrelly
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Ernie Hudson, Cheech Marin, Kaitlin Olson, Madison Tevlin, Joshua Felder, Kevin Iannucci, Ashton Gunning
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Release Date: March 10, 2023
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
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