Director Bobby Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber), known for his hit-and-miss extreme comedies with his brother Peter, takes a script by Mark Rizzo (television's Gravity Falls) and runs with it in his solo debut. But this time, the direction isn't toward the low-brow comedy that made him famous. Instead, he presents a movie with a heartfelt message that shows there is more to his skill than just gutter humor.
After a drunk driving accident, former minor-league basketball coach Marcus Marakovich (Woody Harrelson) is given a choice: go to jail or complete community service by coaching a team of intellectually disabled players called the Friends. At first, he finds the task unbearable and thinks it is beneath him because he is good enough for the NBA. But as he continues to train them and learn about the players as individuals, he realizes two things: they have a lot to teach him about being human, and they have a real shot at becoming Special Olympics champions.
Farrelly stretches his legs here, and it is a successful hike. By tackling a subject that used to be relegated to backhanded jokes and adapting it to a more humanistic perspective, he's proven he has the chops to take on any kind of comedy - and perhaps more serious films as well. The challenges and discrimination that the intellectually disabled face daily are emotionally portrayed, along with the family and love-life relationship issues their caretakers have to deal with. While thin on development for most of the characters, the story moves along nicely and keeps the audience's attention. Best, it doesn't always play out in the expected way. Some will argue that the script focuses too much on Harrelson's character and not enough on the Friends. The reality is that, through Marcus's evolution, the audience can better understand the team members as representatives of their individual selves and their community. Often, the biggest roadblock to acceptance for disabled persons of any kind is understanding, and as Marcus gains it, so might the audience. This is bolstered by ten disabled actors whose work keeps the film grounded in the theme. They're quirky and fun without being the butt of the jokes. Harrelson continues to demonstrate his range, and his performance here is exceptional because he stars with the other actors instead of above them, keeping the focus of the tale where it needs to be.
The film is moved along by an exceptionally well-selected soundtrack of songs from beginning to end. This is especially evident in several well-framed scenes that depict emotions well without showing them.
Champions is not the film that fans of Farrelly's previous work will expect of him. Instead, it is something better, and his followers should respect his artistic development. Put frankly, the film is an underdog winner.