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Bad News Bears (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 22 July 2005
Image“Bad News Bears” is a likeable, relaxed remake of the better 1976 movie with Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal. Billy Bob Thornton steps easily into Matthau’s loafers; his Buttermaker is more profane and less weary than Matthau’s, but they’re both great at being grumpy has-beens who evolve into better people because they coach a hangdog Little League baseball team.

The movie is admirably disciplined and focused: it begins just as Buttermaker arrives at the San Fernando Valley ball park where he’s to meet his team for the first time, and it ends a few minutes after the conclusion of the team’s last game of the season. All scenes away from the park relate directly to the kids, to Buttermaker and to their relationship. This kind of firm adherence to form is rare in comedies these days, and this movie deserves a lot of respect for its restraint and resolve.   

It’s directed by Richard Linklater, who now, like Steven Soderbergh, seems to be smoothly shifting from smaller-scale, more personal films and bigger-scale commercial Hollywood outings to which he brings a distinctive viewpoint. His last such movie was “The School of Rock,” and while “Bad News Bears” is, in terms of overall quality, a bit of a step down, it’s a fun little movie that will please audiences everywhere.

Buttermaker is an exterminator; there’s a brief early scene of him strolling past an appalled housewife in a kitchen full of rats that satisfactorily indicates the level of dedication he brings to his work—very low. He was once, briefly, a major league baseball player; he never tells us so, but Thornton’s sad eyes and resigned style fills us in that it was the highlight of his life, that’s it’s all been downhill since then. He’s decided he’s a loser, and is drinking and screwing his way slowly to the end of his life.

He’s picking up a few extra bucks; driven single mom Liz Whitewood (Marcia Gay Harden) has enlisted Buttermaker to coach the team that includes her son Toby (Ridge Canipe). This group of scruffy, argumentative kids exists solely because they’re all the kids none of the other teams in the league wanted.
Buttermaker soon meets Roy Bullock (Greg Kinnear), the auto-salesman coach of the team that’s won their league championship for the last several years. And his son Joey (Carter Jenkins) is that team’s star pitcher. Roy is smarmy and insincere; he quickly sizes up Buttermaker as a loser who offers him no competition. As a girls’ softball team takes the field, Buttermaker mutters “I never thought I’d hear myself say look at the ass on that second baseman, but look at the ass on that second baseman.” Roy grins; Buttermaker is an easy out.

But of course that’s not what happens; if it was, there wouldn’t be a movie. The original “The Bad News Bears” was so successful it spun off a couple of sequels, a TV series and lots of imitations that pop up even today. Earlier this year, “Kicking & Screaming” with Will Ferrell and “Rebound” with Martin Lawrence were yet more variations on the same theme.

But it’s a good theme, and often results in entertaining movies, the jaded adult gradually learning to like, then respect, the scruffy kids in his charge; the scruffy kids gradually learning this seedy grownup is someone they can rely on. And the scruffy kids grow into a real winning team—but in all these, it’s also emphasized that winning isn’t as important as friendship and being a team.

Here, Billy Bob is almost as foul-mouthed as he was in “Bad Santa,” but he’s a little more sentimental, too, and Buttermaker isn’t (yet) as sad-sack a loser as Bad Santa was. But Bad Santa was reformed by a kid (who believed in him), and so is Buttermaker (by kids who at first don’t). At first fairly lackadaisical about coaching, Buttermaker begins to see himself in the kids—they’re scorned by the other teams, laughed at by adults. It doesn’t help when the only sponsor he can find is a strip club; the team now has uniforms and a name, the Bears. (In the original, the sponsor was a bail bondsman.) The strippers show up to cheer on their team, a sweet, funny touch.

Buttermaker becomes more involved with the kids, liking them in spite of themselves. It’s an uphill battle; two of the kids are Mexicans who don’t speak English, another is an Armenian whose father doesn’t approve of baseball, another is a skinny little black kid whose idol, to Buttermaker’s surprise, is the very white Mark McGwire. Then there’s blustering fat boy Engelberg (Brandon Craggs), who turns every comment into an insult based on his being fat. He’s constantly at odds with feisty, furious Tanner Boyle (Timmy Deters), who’s angry about everything and at everyone, especially Buttermaker. And Engelberg. There’s Ahmad Abdul Rahim (Kenneth “K.C.” Harris), who’s not much of a player, but is a whiz at statistics. And then there’s Hooper (Troy Gentile), who’s confined to a wheelchair.

As Buttermaker slowly becomes more devoted to his team, he begins to think of ways he could actually improve their playing. He approaches 12-year-old Amanda Whurlitzer (Sammi Kane Kraft); he went with her mother for a while, and had acted as the girl’s father. She’s never forgotten that, nor forgiven him for breaking up with her mother, and at first refuses Buttermaker’s request for her to join the Bears. Of course, she finally relents.

Kelly Leak (Jeffrey Davies) is an outlaw kind of kid, roaring around illegally on a motorcycle, clearly interested in baseball but reluctant to join any team. But when Roy Bullock treats him badly, Kelly shows up for the Bears. He’s a great hitter and pitcher, and Amanda is a great pitcher. Their skills galvanize the team into becoming better and better. There are further encounters with Roy Bullock, and the Bears still get razzed by other players. But they persevere.

The story still engages, and Thornton always works well with kids, even back in “Sling Blade.” He’s a cagey, careful actor, engaging us and the kids slowly. There’s no one big incident that changes Buttermaker’s mind about his young team; instead, it’s the accumulation of events. In the same manner, Thornton unbends little by little, finally devoted totally to his kids.

A serious weakness here, which the original didn’t share, is that Sammi Kane Kraft is very believable as a ball player—which she actually is—but she’s not convincing as an actress. Her performance is often amateurish and unconvincing, though she does relate well with Thornton. Linklater should have realized it’s easier to teach an actor how to fake being a baseball player than to teach a baseball player how to act. Still, most audiences won’t find this a serious defect.

A more serious problem is the leisurely pace, both of too many individual scenes and of the movie overall. At times, the effort to find ways to make Buttermaker seem even seedier than he is going in become strained. Okay, a strip club sponsor, that’s okay—but why would he take 12-year-olds to Hooter’s? This tends to make the movie, rather than Buttermaker, look smarmy.

It doesn’t have the energy of the original “The Bad News Bears,” nor, of course, the originality, but it does have Billy Bob Thornton, and it does have a sure-fire story. It’s hard not to get caught up in this movie, even if you’ll shake off the feeling on the way to the parking lot. Entertaining though it is, it’s just another summer movie.

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