Bad News Bears
directed by Richard Linklater
starring Billy Bob Thornton, Greg Kinnear, Marcia Gay Harden, Sammi Kane Kraft
For decades, Little League baseball has been much more than a youth’s introduction to America’s favorite pastime. Filled with caring, altruistic coaches, leagues nurture young minds and bodies, providing lessons in teamwork and fair play. Little League ball is the stuff of fuzzy, warm memories, where every game — won or lost — ended with a “Good game” from the coach, an “Attaboy” from dad, and a slice of mom’s apple pie.
Of course, anyone who has put on a sponsor’s jersey would have to admit that that’s a load of bullshit.
In 1976, The Bad News Bears (starring the late, inimitable Walter Matthau) assaulted the myths of Little League play, tearing a gash in the ugly underbelly of organized youth sports. Created by the late screenwriter Bill Lancaster (Burt’s son), the film acknowledged the all-too-often harsh realities of Saturday games, from the power-hungry coaches with small-penis issues and the overbearing, overly loud parents to the spoiled “prospects” who receive all the “nurturing” — while the kids who really could use some self-esteem are left out in the cold.
Of course, the movie was a hit, an instant classic which spawned two well-intentioned, but pathetic sequels.
Given that the uncut version of the irreverent film is rarely found on cable television, one could hardly complain about another cinematic visit to the Bears’ dugout. To sweeten the pot, the summer’s remake was helmed by Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Dazed and Confused, etc.), and stars the only person that could replace Matthau as Coach Morris Buttermaker — Billy Bob Thornton. Unsurprisingly, the result is funny as hell.
Thornton tones down his Bad Santa act just enough for a PG-13 rating, while losing little of his comic potency. His Buttermaker is a drunken pest exterminator and former minor league junk-ball hurler whose chick-magnet claim to fame is once pitching two-thirds of an inning for the Seattle Mariners before descending into a boozy hell. He’s been hired, out-of-the-blue, by naive attorney/mom Liz Whitewood (Marcia Gay Harden) to coach a team of misfits that she created after winning a lawsuit against the local elitist league. Before he can sober up enough to read his roster, Buttermaker is approached by Coach Roy Bullock (Greg Kinnear), a smarmy fellow with too-tight pants who can’t stand the thought of the Bears being in his league.
To its credit, this Bad News Bears sticks pretty close to Lancaster’s original script, occasionally straying to produce its own memorable scenes and unforgettable lines. For example, Buttermaker, wearing a t-shirt that reads “She looked better last night,” throws a round of bean-ball bp dead drunk, before passing out on the mound. Just like Matthau, Thornton’s character drives a vintage convertible; he stores vermin in the back seat’s ice chest when it’s not full of cheap suds and whiskey. Instead of having the Bears clean swimming pools, the new Buttermaker has them gassing rats in crawl spaces while he gets loaded. He views Bullock with lazy contempt, and barely attempts to conceal his habits from Whitewood, who somehow can’t detect the eau de liquor that lingers around the coach.
And then there’s the team, updated to offend 21st century sensibilities. Besides a Muslim-monickered black kid who worships Mark McGuire, there’s an Indian statistician to replace Ogilvie, two Mexican brothers who can’t speak a word of English, an Armenian boy with a disapproving father, and a smart-assed parapalegic in a wheelchair who expects to field grounders. Angry butterball Englebert is still at catcher, failing to lose weight on the Atkins diet, and the character of Timmy Lupus returns, now as a fairly snot-free, yet semi-catatonic basket case. Thankfully, hot-headed Tanner Boyle is also still on the roster, and more foul-mouthed than ever.
Devoid of talent and lacking fundamental skills, the Bears start the season as walking (or rolling) disasters. Buttermaker attempts to even the odds with corked bats and a dwarf posing as a new recruit, to no avail. Two ringers reluctantly join the fold: Kelly Leak (Jeffrey Davies), a motorcyle-riding rebel with a shotgun arm and home-run swing, and Buttermaker’s estranged step-daughter Amanda Whurlitzer (Sammi Kane Kraft), a strikeout artist who wants nothing to do with baseball — or her asshole step-dad.
Kraft and Davies, young hotshot athletes with no prior acting experience, are hardly Jackie Earle Haley and Tatum O’Neal, but that comparison is hardly fair. Davies does a passable job in a pared-down role, and Kraft has enough charm to be somewhat endearing.
With Leak and Whurlitzer carrying the team, the Bears — cheered on by a gaggle of Buttermaker’s stripper girlfriends — advance towards the championship, and a showdown with Bullock’s Yankees.
Again, Linklater & Co. have hardly reinvented the Bears, but this movie’s laughs come even more frequently than in the original. This new version lacks the sweetness of Matthau’s and O’Neal’s performances, and Linklater’s direction is decidedly sloppy; however, another standout performance by Jolie’s ex almost makes up for it.
Bad News Bears is yet another remake worth watching to come along this summer (War of the Worlds is the other), a hitting streak that’s simply incredible. A recycle of Breaking Training or Go To Japan is probably inevitable; if Billy Bob returns for more, so will I.
Bad News Bears Movie: BadNewsBearsMovie.com