The remake of the 1976 kids' classic "The Bad News Bears" is directed by the talented and prolific Richard Linklater. Why? Good question. "It's the kind of film you couldn't get away with if it didn't have the successful lineage of the first film," Linklater told Entertainment Weekly recently. "If we didn't have the name 'Bad News Bears,' we couldn't be doing what we are doing." He was referring, no doubt, to the prodigious underage swearing. And the Hooters scene. And the part where Billy Bob Thornton, his expression hovering between modesty and childlike wonder, confesses to Marcia Gay Harden that he hasn't paid for sex in years. Three days later I can't stop thinking about it. It's a perfect Buddhist conundrum: To make an unmakable movie, one must but remake it.
Meditate on that.
Linklater is on to something, I think. Rather than sock us with another meta-elbow to the ribs (we've sustained more than is humane already, and summer isn't even over), the director of "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" has rendered a straightforward, surprisingly faithful and definitely loving adaptation of the original, which starred Walter Matthau as a washed-up major league baseball player who gets hired to coach the world's most hopeless Little League team.
This time, "Bad News Bears" stars Billy Bob Thornton as Morris Buttermaker, once a pitcher for the Seattle Mariners (the experience lasted 2/3 of an inning), now an unreliable pest exterminator, full-time drunk and the most inappropriate Little League coach ever. Buttermaker gets the job after Liz Whitewood (Harden), a lawyer and single alpha-mom, sues the league for excluding her nonathletic son and wins. Having opened a Pandora's box of last-to-be-picked types, she pays Buttermaker to take on the Bears, a team that neither knows how to play nor particularly wants to. They're mostly there to satisfy their parents' egos.
Aside from stuffing it with jokes, writers Glenn Ficurra and John Requa ("Bad Santa") have preserved Bill Lancaster's original script to the point where it feels like a throwback to another time — specifically 1976, when a movie could be as cheerfully subversive as "The Bad News Bears" and still be considered appropriate for children. But that was 30 years and a million bike helmets ago. Despite their similarities, the original still somehow feels like it was made for kids. The remake feels like it was made for people who were kids in 1976.
Mainly, this has to do with the cultural context. But there's also the rascally person of Billy Bob Thornton to consider. Matthau's Buttermaker was a lovable, cranky drunk, but Thornton's is another thing entirely. Lean, gray-haired, sporting a white-tipped Fu Manchu mustache and soul patch, his cheerful dissipation attracts women like moths to a blowtorch. Not only is he seduced by the megalomaniac powerhouse, Liz, but, like Snow White and her small woodland friends, a cluster of frolicking strippers also seems to hover around him wherever he goes. If it weren't for his daughter-figure, Amanda (Sammi Kane Kraft), you might be tempted to think him shallow.
Aside from Liz's pint-sized Toby (Ridge Canipe); the team consists of Engelberg (Brandon Craggs), the defensive fat kid; Tanner (Timmy Deters), the overly aggressive shrimpy kid; Miguel and Jose Agilar (Carlos and Emmanuel Estrada), Mexican brothers who don't speak English; Ahmad Abdul Rahim (Kenneth Harris), a black kid who is bad at sports; and Timmy Lupus (Tyler Patrick Jones), the much-maligned "booger-eating moron." Ficurra and Requa have modified the original to mock current pieties (the testy Engelberg is on Atkins, which mostly means he keeps baggies of bacon in his pocket). The new Bears team also includes Hooper (Troy Gentile), the kid in the wheelchair; Prem (Aman Johal), the nerdy Indian kid with the laptop; and Garo Daragebrigadian (Jeffrey Tedmori), the Armenian kid whose dad ridicules his attempts to "do American stuff."
At first, Buttermaker is what you might call a laissez-faire coach. But when his annoyance with Roy Bullock (Greg Kinnear), the Lycra-loving sports dad who coaches the rival team, reaches its limit, Buttermaker quits passing out drunk on the pitcher's mound and resolves to whip the Bears into shape. The first thing he does is look for Amanda (Kraft), his ex-girlfriend's daughter, whom he walked out on without saying goodbye. Amanda throws like a girl who's led several teams to championships (which Kraft has), and Buttermaker convinces her to join the team. Her presence in turn helps convince the talented Kelly Leak (Jeffrey Davies), a young Buttermaker in the buttermaking, to join as well.
Mellow, athletic and preternaturally wholesome, Kraft is the opposite of the sharp Tatum O'Neal, who played Amanda in the original. With her slouchy shoulders, heavy lids and slightly jutting lower lip, she is more reminiscent of Matthau — or Droopy — than the chirpy, bird-like beauty O'Neal. The combination of Kraft's athleticism and lack of guile give her Amanda a child-like tenderness that makes for a better foil to Thornton's nervy Buttermaker.
Demure parents may find the stripper jokes objectionable, or object to the scene where the team winds up at Hooters, singing along to Eric Clapton's rendition of "Cocaine" (though this is the funniest moment in the movie).
But the most subversive thing about "Bad News Bears" is the idea that childhood is not always the greatest state to find oneself in. Sometimes it feels like a humiliating insult, alleviated only by the added injury of having to grow up. The most daring thing about "Bad News Bears" is the suggestion that a guy like Buttermaker might have something to teach the youth of America. He does. "You lie your ... off," he tells Garo, who is thinking about quitting rather than tell his father they lost another game. "It's the only way. Look, this is America. Tell them what they want to hear. You know ... 'I don't smoke.' 'She said she was 18'...."
It's a remake. Then you do what you want.
'Bad News Bears'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for rude behavior, language throughout, some sexuality and thematic elements
Times guidelines: More of a movie with kids than a movie for kids; the language and humor are racy throughout.
Billy Bob Thornton...Morris Buttermaker
Greg Kinnear...Roy Bullock
Marcia Gay Harden ...Liz Whitewood
Sammi Kane Kraft...Amanda Whurlitzer
Ridge Canipe...Toby Whitewood
Brandon Craggs...Mike Engelberg
Timmy Deters...Tanner Boyle
Paramount Pictures presents a Media talent Group production. In association with Detour Filmproduction. Director Richard Linklater. Producer J. Geyer Kosinski and Richard Linklater. Executive producers Marcus Viscidi. Screenplay by Bill Lancaster and Glenn Ficarra & John Requa. Director of photography Rogier Stoffers. Editor Sandra Adair. Costume designer Karen Patch. Music Ed Shearmur. Production designer Bruce Curtis. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. In wide release.