Bad News Bears

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Bad News Bears
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

In 1976 Walter Matthau led his pack of irreverent junior misfits to victory in what became the benchmark for nearly every kid team movie that has come down the pike since. But, I can’t think of one, off the top of my head, which even comes close to the profane cheekiness and fun of the original “The Bad News Bears.”

Things start out OK, in the Richard Linklater-helmed remake, as we meet Buttermaker dumping the contents from a can of non-alcoholic beer and filling it up with bourbon. Then he presents us with his rude, foul-mouth language that passes for normal conversation and I’m thinking that the remake may have its own spin with Billy Bob in the lead. I’m sorry to say, it doesn’t.

The screenplay, attributed to the original’s Bill Lancaster with Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, takes the earlier work and, besides the new Buttermaker’s extreme potty mouth, strips any edge the story had and makes it a politically correct, message-laden tome of tolerance and understanding. What the filmmakers give us is a shallow imitation of a classic kids sport movie that begs the question: why the remake? One answer is: because there must be money to be made here. It can’t be anything more than that because there is nothing of note to the new “Bad News Bears.”

When I first learned that Billy Bob Thornton was to reprise the Morris Buttermaker character (so expertly rendered by Matthau) I though that there may be something here. After all, he had just made a big splash with his raunchy Saint Nick in “Bad Santa.” But, one man cannot save a movie that does nothing more than imitate a better work. And herein lays the problem.

Billy Bob was a good choice to play Morris. Consider, though, the rest of the cast. First off, the next best thing in the ’76 film was Tatum O’Neill as Buttermaker’s ex-step daughter, Amanda. The young actress had a believable toughness about her (and a pretty good-looking pitch) to be the catalyst for the Bears to become winners. The new Amanda, played by Sammi Kraft, does not hold a candle to O’Neill’s terrific performance with her bland reproduction of a better performance.

Then, there is the opposing coach, played so well by Vic Morrow almost 30 years ago, whose obsession to win at all cost bordered on the psychotic. Gregg Kinnear reprises this character, called Bullock, and puts an aw-shucks demeanor on the man, making the “bad guy” not so bad. The same comparison can be made to all of the new Bears team members and their earlier renditions with the ’76 BNBs hands above better than the current crop.

From a technical standpoint, the new “Bears” looked washed out and over bright but this could have been a print issue. The “Work In Progress” banner was shown before the screening I caught so the release version may look better.  Maybe not, but I’m not going back to find out. That the film is in this state a mere week before release indicates that it is being rushed to take advantage of the hot summer nights and the air conditioning that the multiplex brings.

It’s a rare event when a remake improves on the original. “Bad News Bears” is a shallow imitation that, though the highest form of flattery, does not mean it should have been remade. I it give a D.

Buttermaker (Billy Bob Thornton, "Bad Santa") sustains his womanizing ways with stories of how he once pitched 2/3 of an inning in the big leagues, but the middle-aged alcoholic maintains his trailer park lifestyle as a pest exterminator.  When he's suckered into coaching a new Little League team made up of other outfit's rejects he barely goes through the motions for the paycheck, but when his players are ready to give up in disgust, Buttermaker has a change of heart and turns his bunch of losers into "Bad News Bears."

Richard Linklater hit one out of the park with 2003's "School of Rock," another tale of a single guy transforming a bunch of kids and star Thornton and writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's "Bad Santa" was even more outrageously un-PC than the original movie they've adapted.  So what went wrong? This time they all struggle to get the occasional wiffle ball aloft.

It's certainly not the fault of "Bad Santa" star Billy Bob Thornton.  After that film, he was the (almost too) obvious choice to take over Walter Matthau's beery old crank of a coach and Thornton puts a lower key sheen on his Santa's obliviously inappropriate behavior.  While 2005's kids don't drink (except for nonalcoholic beer) or smoke, they do engage in a rousing sing along to 'Cocaine' in a Hooters and find Buttermaker sneaking out of mom's bedroom.  PC-ness itself is goosed with the inclusion of Matthew Hooper (Troy Gentile), a kid in a wheelchair who lawyer Liz Whitewood (Marcia Gay Harden, "Welcome to Mooseport") believes has the right to play baseball. But Linklater fails in two ways.  He never coaxes a strong enough sense of cause and effect out of his story, so Buttermaker's changes of heart seem to come out of thin air, visual jokes are underplayed and scene changes often feel random.  And his pacing is all off, with the film's climatic championship game dragging on as if it were being played in real time.  It's as if the whole movie had OD'ed on Valium.

Greg Kinnear's character ("Godsend," "Robots") as Buttermaker's rival coach of the Yankees, Bullock, is particularly underdeveloped.  His penchant for wearing pants which overly enhance his crotch is a joke that doesn't work, because it's not made extreme enough.  Worse, his relationship with two boys - his own son Joey (Carter Jenkins) and local tough Kelly Leak (ball player Jeff Davies) - should be the basis of his own undoing, but the threads aren't tied tightly enough.  Amanda Whurlitzer (all star Sammi Kraft) is a nice enough new screen presence but no match for the original's scene-stealing Tatum. Most of the kids fade into the background interchangeably. Only Timmy Deters' ("Kicking & Screaming") pugilistic Tanner makes a strong impression (although Gentile gets one of the film's true laughs playing on Buttermaker's sympathies).

"Bad News Bears," which sounded like one of 2005's more promising remakes due to the talent involved, turns out to be one of its most unnecessary.  These "Bears" aren't bad news - they're boring.

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