Champions (2023) **** – Seen at the Cinema

If there’s any justice in the world this fresh take on the feel-good movie will trump fading franchise at the box office. Sure, we’ve been here before. Due to a misdemeanour or professional fall from grace, grouchy lame duck is forced to coach a bunch of lame duck misfits. Hell, The Mighty Ducks (1992) even took the same route of community service, though that regarded a lawyer.

Despite his position as a mere assistant coach in the most minor of minor basketball leagues,  Marcus (Woody Harrelson) has an NBA level of arrogance. To escape an 18-month jail sentence following a DUI, he is handed an intellectually challenged gang who test more than his patience. On a  personal level, he has to swap seeing a team as something that can blindly follow his instructions to a group of individuals whose lives require understanding. And go from being an inveterate Tinderite to a keeper.

Marcus as well as Harrelson has his work cut out because you’ve never come across such a bunch of scene-stealers from animal-loving Johnny (Kevin Iannucci) who has a morbid fear of water to Showtime (Bradley Evens) whose specialty is celebration despite his constant inability to hit the target due to his insistence in turning his back on the hoop when taking a shot. In between you’ve Ms Consentino (Madison Tevlin), a legend in her own lunchtime and natural born hard-ass leader, and Darius (Joshua Felder), the team’s top player whose interaction with coach is limited to “Nope” as he goes immediately on strike.

Considerable effort goes into grounding the lives of these characters, all gainfully employed, none actually lame ducks. And seeing the world from their point of view. And thankfully, the movie avoids all signs of virtue signalling, the characters so vibrant on screen they are just a joy to watch.

In plot terms, we are treated to a series of sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching episodes, while Marcus gets wise to his situation and transforms from selfish a**hole to caring person, while not losing sight of his main function which is winning. Along the way, he attracts a girlfriend Alex (Kaitlin Olson), Johnnie’s sister, a 40-something singleton, happy to put up with passable if it means regular sex and with a refreshing line in punchy dialog that would put any cocky fellow in his place.

It doesn’t end the way you’d expect, which is probably another first for this kind of picture, but it’s a very enjoyable ride. You couldn’t choose a more difficult subject than acceptance of the intellectually challenged in the community and director Bobby Farelly (Dumb and Dumber To, 2014), who would probably be the first to admit he was guilty of getting easy laughs from such characters in the past. In his first movie for nearly a decade, he sprints past every potential trap with aplomb, only stopping to indulge in a vomit scene that seems a prerequisite of his style.

A good many of the laughs are at Marcus’s expense and often a phrase used in coaching comes back to bite him. And basketball is such an easy sport to understand, you run from one end of a court to another and lob a ball into a basket so the only tactical element we have to absorb is the intricacy of one specific move, helpfully translated from arcane sporting jargon into the easily understood by a dollop of Shakespeare.

Part of the joy of the feel-good movie is that it will be borne away on the box office wind by word-of-mouth, that impossible-to-define trick where audience approval wins out over gigantic marketing spend. Alternatively, we might live in the kind of cynical society that is already immune to the heart-warming. I hope not because this is immensely enjoyable without stooping to tear-jerking.

Woody Harrelson (Triangle of Sadness, 2022) is back to his best and you can see why he was at one time an out-and-out star. And there’s the credits bonus, unless this is snazzy CGI, of Woody singing and playing the piano and doing a back flip in the pool.After decades of bit parts and television roles Kaitlin Olson comes exceptionally good in a zingy role that delivers a side order of angst. As a bonus on the acting side are roles for Cheech Marin (The War with Grandpa, 2020)  and Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters: Afterlife, 2021).

Book now.

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