The Bad News Bears

on April 07, 1976 by Mark Keizer
A faithful retelling of a story that didn't need to be retold, "Bad News Bears" is infused with the spirit of the 1976 original, but the experience can be likened to dusting off an old recipe and leaving out the tastiest ingredients. The earlier version, which starred Walter Matthau as droopy dyspeptic Morris Buttermaker, was downright profane, which wound up being its primary legacy. The revamped "Bears" comes during a politically correct era inconsistent with what the original film had to offer. Had this film been as wicked as the Matthau edition, we undoubtedly would have survived as a nation, but now we'll never know.

In crafting the sequel, Paramount was surely aware of the intensity and frequency of the profanity (mostly delivered by children) that could be employed while still retaining a bottom-line friendly PG-13. What's amazing is that the original, with its talk of "Jews, spicks, niggers, pansies and a booger-eating moron", earned a PG. The most ribald moments here, like when the team's 12-year old pitcher comments on the size of Coach Buttermaker's penis, do shock. But the surprise comes at the thought that such material is now considered shocking, and that somewhere, someone is writing his or her Congressman.

A pool cleaner in the original, Buttermaker (played by the terrific Billy Bob Thornton, the best choice to gleefully roll around in this particular mud) is now a rat exterminator roped into coaching a bumbling team of foul-mouthed misfits. Like a Benetton ad gone awry, the squad includes an Armenian, an African-American, an Obese-American and a kid in a wheelchair, all of whom stink at playing baseball. They're certainly not helped by Buttermaker, who spends most practices guzzling beer. Prodded by pride and the tauntings of rival coach Roy Bullock (Greg Kinnear), the ex-minor leaguer pulls his squad together and guides them to the championship game. He's helped by two late additions to the team, fireball pitcher Amanda Whurlitzer (Sammi Kane Kraft) and power-hitting bad seed Kelly (Jeffrey Davies), who practically chain-smoked in the original, but goes smokeless here.

Richard Linklater ("Dazed and Confused") is a relaxed director, which fits the movie's suburban dustbowl setting. However, relaxed becomes lazy in the later innings and he can't coax good performances from many of the child actors, which is surprising considering how well he navigated the kid-fueled "School of Rock." Coming off best is hotheaded Tanner (Timmy Deters, similar in appearance to the original's Chris Barnes) and corpulent catcher Engelberg (Brandon Craggs, clearly enjoying being paid to talk dirty). The other kids, including real-deal pitcher Kraft (taking over for the much better Tatum O'Neal) are simply okay. Kinnear is fine as Bullock, although Vic Morrow was more menacing, and therefore more interesting, in the earlier version. Marcia Gay Harden registers nicely as the Alpha Mom (she makes her own infused vinegar) with eyes on Buttermaker.

Ficarra and Requa don't seem particularly committed to the characters, so no story thread is explored or resolved to total satisfaction. Laughs come exclusively from the naughty bits, and there are some doozies, like when the team sings the Eric Clapton chestnut "Cocaine" while eating at Hooters. Aside from the plot similarities, wink-wink nods to the film's progenitor are abundant, like Buttermaker's visit to Chico's Bail Bonds and the extensive use of Bizet's "Carmen" in Ed Shearmur's score.

Tim Burton's recent take on "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" shows that it's possible to improve on a beloved original. But like the majority of bygone film and TV properties currently being strip-mined, "Bad News Bears" has been robbed of its nerve and repackaged for multiplex consumption. Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Greg Kinnear and Marcia Gay Harden. Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Bill Lancaster and Glenn Ficarra & John Requa. Produced by J. Geyer Kosinski, and Richard Linklater. A Paramount release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for rude behavior, language throughout, some sexuality and thematic elements. Running time: 114 min

Tags: Billy Bob Thornton, Greg Kinnear and Marcia Gay Harden, Directed by Richard Linklater, Written by Bill Lancaster, Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, Produced by J. Geyer Kosinski, and Richard Linklater, Paramount, Comedy

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