When did the Farrelly brothers get so touchy-feely?
This is the filmmaking duo Bobby and Peter, who gave us such oft-crude comedies as Dumb and Dumber, Osmosis Jones and There’s Something About Mary.
And then in 2018, Peter directed the moving race-dramedy Green Book, which won three Oscars — including Best Picture.
Now Bobby has directed 2023’s rousing Champions, starring Woody Harrelson.
Granted, there were seeds of genuine warmth and affection in their earlier films; but like Green Book, this new movie — yet another sports-underdog tale inspired by actual events — takes it to another level.
You might’ve noticed that Hollywood just keeps cranking out these “true stories” about unlikely players or teams who triumph. And that’s because they work!
Champions — released early this year but now available for streaming — works very well indeed.
Harrelson plays a hot-headed minor-league basketball coach in Des Moines; on the same day, he loses his temper, his job, and his freedom after shoving a fellow-coach and then drunk-driving into a police car.
Given a choice between community service and 18 months in jail, Marcus chooses the former and finds himself coaching a ragtag team of likable disabled kids at a local center called The Friends.
While Harrelson and his name-known co-stars are terrific, the film’s finest feature is undoubtedly its hilarious and unabashed special-needs kids, who are intellectually but not physically disabled.
While we are invited to laugh at their on-court antics, there is no condescension, and of course no mockery. Not sure how Farrelly maintains his loving and respectful tone while we’re chuckling over, for example, the flamboyant “Showtime,” who always shoots facing backwards and cannot even hit the rim.
Most of them know their own needs, advocating for themselves and one another — particularly the no-nonsense Consentino, who has Down syndrome and is truly a force to be reckoned with.
The supporting cast includes Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters), fresh-faced Matt Cook as an assistant coach and Cheech Marin — who has also gotten pretty touchy-feely of late. (Catch him in the sterling Little League drama Perfect Game if you get a chance!)
As for the plot: In standard sports-story fashion, Harrelson’s Marcus will have to learn that his unsung new work-life and struggling team are happier places than the NBA, which has long been his goal and becomes a key plot-point later in the film.
Meanwhile, Farrelly and screenwriter Mark Rizzo flesh out the tale with a low-key love story involving Marcus and a local lass, beautifully played by Kaitlin Olson (Hacks, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia).
And Rizzo really hits his mark at the end; that moment with the inevitable one-point-difference at the climax of the championship game is somehow both predictable and unexpected.
There are unlikely plot mechanics with Marcus’s harebrained scheme to raise money for his team’s tournament in Canada; and that may be one reason critics weren’t nuts about this film, ranking it a disappointing 58 at Rotten Tomatoes. Yet it managed to score a 95 with regular reviewers.
You can count me among the 95.
Critics: What do they know anyway?