Bad News Bears (2005)

10916977_galIf Bad News Bears isn’t the second film in Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad trilogy (following 2003’s Bad Santa), it should be. Shambling into the frame and muttering dark, unprintable things to himself, Thornton is an inspired choice to play the new Coach Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau’s role in the 1976 original), a broken-down has-been who takes a Little League team full of misfits and steers them towards the championship game. The movie is affable and nothing great, but it works, mostly due to Thornton’s charismatic anti-charisma. He is the unlikeliest actor to play a lead role in a studio film, much less a studio film with a cast of kids, and he knows it, and so do we. He plays losers with a kind of shabby dignity, and his triumphs are ours; we feel more comfortable rooting for him than for, say, Tom Cruise or other streamlined models from the Hollywood factory.

I’m not sure Bad News Bears needed to be remade; for one thing, in the nearly thirty years since its first incarnation, we’ve been inundated with kiddie sports films featuring wise-ass kids (hell, Keanu Reeves went down this road four years ago in Hardball). The original film was notable in its day for the amount of profanity (albeit PG-rated) the kids were allowed to spew; the remake is similarly colorful in its rhetoric, though some of the antics have been toned down — no smoking, no racial epithets (with one exception delivered by a snotty opponent). Nothing here really risks scandalizing parents, apart from the detail that the team’s sponsor is a strip club, and Buttermaker takes the kids out for a victory chow-down at Hooters and leads them in a rousing rendition of Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine.”

Some will be attracted to the movie by Billy Bob, others by the director, Richard Linklater, who has had one of the more varied careers among indie-filmmakers of his generation. Linklater seems to approach Bad News Bears as a bookend piece to his 2003 School of Rock, in which a disgruntled has-been showed kids the way to Led Zeppelin Valhalla. Those looking for the Linklater of Dazed and Confused or Before Sunset in the film will be baffled; he has made the movie because he always wanted to make a baseball film, and this project came across his desk, and he has done an honorable and unobtrusive job. Linklater stages the games well, sometimes keeping the camera at a good remove so that we can see an entire play unfold on the diamond, rather than cheating with editing. He handles the young cast deftly, except for ringers Sammi Kane Kraft (as the girl pitcher who doesn’t throw like a girl) and Jeff Davies (as a punk with a mean swing), who are real-life athletes but quite obviously not trained actors; in a couple of scenes, genuine acting is needed from them, and they’re just not up to it, but they play beautifully.

The movie may end on a shot of the red, white and blue fluttering over the field, but Bad News Bears is no callow belch of patriotism or the ethic of winning. In the home stretch, Buttermaker pushes the kids hard to win, but then seems to understand (Thornton conveys it mostly with his eyes) that this game should be more about letting each kid play and have a good time. We want them to win, if for no other reason than to wipe the smug grin off the opposing team’s coach (Greg Kinnear at his smarmiest), but ultimately it’s not important to the narrative. The movie is your standard underdog sports comedy, with the ramshackle wit of Billy Bob Thornton and the gentle touch of Richard Linklater. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

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Explore posts in the same categories: comedy, kids, remake

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