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Champions review – a crushingly formulaic underdog sports dramedy

Though there are sweet moments hidden within its generic story, the mediocrity of Bobby Farrelly's new film becomes exhausting

If there is one thing to surprise you about the painfully generic, crushingly formulaic Champions, it’s that it has received a full cinema release. I can’t think of many movies in the last 12 months that have more suited a streaming debut than this new dramedy from Bobby Farrelly (the Farrelly brother that didn’t win those Green Book Oscars). An overlong and self-consciously wholesome slab of pure content that also happens to be a remake of a Spanish film, it’s the kind of thing you chuck on in the background for two hours, waiting for the finale to deliver that vague hit of “feelgood” before moving on with your day.

It’s not entirely ineffective in this latter aim, but man oh man is Champions often just a slog. Following disgraced basketball coach Marcus (Woody Harrelson) during his 90 days of community service in which he must coach the local team of players with intellectual disabilities, it hits every beat you’re already imagining. There’s some undeniably sweet stuff within all this, and Harrelson shares a warm chemistry with the players – especially Kevin Iannucci as the morally-centred animal lover Johnny – but it’s all so predictable that by the time a new scene rolls around, you’ve basically already seen it in your head.

It’s this unbelievably rigid commitment to the underdog story formula – from Marcus’s initial reluctance, to the emotional breakthrough, to the moment of dispiriting failure, and finally the big triumph – that forms the primary factor of Champions’s core failure. As you see every plot move and joke coming, they’re arriving late when they do eventually hit, and the whole endeavour drags on for what feels like half an hour more longer than the actual – still a bit bloated – two-hour runtime.

Harrelson and the players all give pretty decent performances, and credit to Farrelly and writer Mark Rizzo giving all the players their own distinct personalities and styles of humour – it’s a pretty big cast and no-one gets lost in the shuffle. Kaitlin Olson, though, is completely wasted as Johnny’s theatre-loving older sister and Marcus’s love interest Alex. If you’ve seen even one episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia you’ll know how sublime a comic actress Olson is, and to not let her flex these skills in an ostensibly comedic film is a real crime.

Champions just isn’t really funny enough on the whole, most of the jokes landing to a soft exhale of breath at best. There aren’t any embarrassing comedic whiffs here either, just a lot of middle of the road humour that doesn’t quite pass the time quickly enough. I’m no great fan of Farrelly’s previous, cruder works, so the softening of his style isn’t inherently the wrong choice, but being less offensive doesn’t actually need to come at the cost of also avoiding big laugh lines.

Predictably lazy filmmaking aside, Champions doesn’t do what it’s trying to do all that terribly, but its consistent mediocrity becomes exhausting by the halfway mark at the latest, where it becomes all too easy to just check out and fill in the rest of the film’s blanks in your head.

Champions is released in UK cinemas on 10 March.

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