“Bad News Bears” charts the season of a Little League team so lacking in baseball fundamentals and team unity it makes Charlie Brown’s bunch look like favorites to win the World Series. But for all its inadequacies, who could at least have comic potential, the team, and as a result the film itself, can’t escape a serious case of blandness. Adding to the “E” for error on the film’s scorecard is the surprisingly ineffective casting of Billy Bob Thornton as Coach Buttermaker, as Thornton fails to evoke the nuances of the role, be it the well-hidden goodness or the devil-may-care booziness, that Walther Matthau perfectly captured in the 1976 original film.
Virtually every development feels like a watered-down version of the previous film, which was funnier both in general and in specific instances. One of the few times I laughed in BNB ’05 was when Buttermaker, whose day job is being an exterminator, brings the kids along to help with some fumigation tasks: you feel guilty when laughing at the complete disregard he shows for the safety of his players. Overall the screenplay is quite similar in both films, but there’s very little rhythm in the new one and comparing the actors is almost always favorable to those in the earlier “Bears”. As a rival coach who takes the game way too seriously, echoing a valid social concern, Vic Morrow gave a more focused performance than Greg Kinnear, who isn’t bad by any means but comes across more as a mildly dictatorial life coach than anything else. An interesting bit of irony to observe, however, is the inherent conflict in what coach Bullock (Kinnear) says and does when he goes to the mound to yell at his pitcher son for not following his “orders”. Yet the scene was more powerful and better handled in the original, including the reactions of the mom in the stands and those of the abusive coach and his kid. That scene clearly showed the breaking point where youth sports can become so devoid of what they should be, fun, that kids simply walk out.
Another thing that works better in the first film is a hurtful heart-to-heart discussion between Buttermaker and his daughter from a failed marriage, who was recruited on the team because of her killer fastball. The rest of the squad is an uninteresting hodgepodge of underachievers, never-achievers and ethnic misfits that we’re never made to care about. The only character that’s lively and funny in both films is shortstop Tanner (Timmy Deters), a good candidate for anger management sessions who had me greatly amused at his efforts to impede the forward progress of the runners rounding second base.
The director is Richard Linklater, who two years ago helmed the very enjoyable “School of Rock”. But that movie had key elements sorely missing from his “Bad News Bears”: a lead actor who’s colorful, kids who have engaging personalities and a sense of a group working towards a common goal. This new film, pretentiously called an “homage” on its official website, rarely grabs your attention and doesn’t seem to have anything to say in a decisive manner. Thornton can be a marvelous actor, and I especially liked his work in “A Simple Plan “ and “Friday Night Lights”. After his turn as a foul-mouthed and bitter Santa in “Bad Santa”, you’d think of Thornton as a great fit for the kind of coach who takes his players to Hooters and finds a gentleman’s club as the sponsor for his team’s uniforms, but the puzzle piece strangely doesn’t fit. Matthau’s Buttermaker, while a boozy and generally grumpy man, looked like his heart was in it to coach the little rascals, while Thornton doesn’t play him in a way that conveys that. Remakes are often despised these days, often with great justification, but there’s a positive aspect to even the weakest of them: they can make you discover some fine films by renting the originals, and this is something movie lovers would be well advised to try, with “Bad News Bears” specifically and as a general rule. You might be pleasantly surprised.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay