It’s a familiar plotline — the loser coach who takes a ragtag team of misfits, whips them into shape, brings in a couple of ringers and begins a winning streak, learns that winning is less important than team spirit, and becomes a better human being in the process. This formula has formed the basis for a slew of mediocre family films: Ladybugs, The Mighty Ducks, Little Giants, Hardball, Kicking and Screaming, Rebound, etc. With so many retreads of the story making gobs of money (and occasionally leading to a professional franchise — see the Anaheim Mighty Ducks), it was inevitable that eventually someone would remake the film that started it all — 1976’s The Bad News Bears. What’s surprising is that what made Bears superior to its many knockoffs — its unsentimental view of the kids and its scathing attack on winning-obsessed parents — remains largely intact.
The remake stars Billy Bob Thornton as Morris Buttermaker, the role originally played by Walter Matthau, and the casting makes Hollywood-style sense: Buttermaker is a foul-mouthed, foul-tempered alcoholic, a watered-down version of Thornton’s character from Bad Santa. The choice of director is a similar fit: Richard Linklater, best known for thoughtful, dialogue-heavy indies like Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise/Sunset, had a big hit a couple of years ago with School of Rock, a film with a similar plotline but with a rock band in place of a sports team. Bring in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the writers behind Bad Santa, to lightly update the script and bake at 350 degrees.
The upshot is a film that’s startlingly like the original; a few characters have been changed a bit and some disco-era details are updated, but overall, it’s virtually the same film. Buttermaker is still a hard-drinking has-been, the kids are still nasty little shits, and the emphasis remains on the journey rather than the destination. There are, however, a few notable changes. Thornton’s Buttermaker has one attribute that Matthau’s was missing: a randy libido, which is served by a number of buxom women half his age and by changing the parent who hires him from a harried city councilman to a sexy working mom (Marcia Gay Harden) who finds his bad habits and bad temper strangely alluring. The kids, too, have experienced a slight update — the geeky know-it-all kid is now Indian, and there’s a boy in a wheelchair — but the central roles are so true to the original that some of the kids are the spitting image of their predecessors from 30 years ago.
Thornton is unquestionably the best thing about the film. He is so loose and natural and unself-conscious that the kids — several of whom are making their professional acting debuts — sometimes seem painfully actorish. Their unpolished performances have a now-I’m-saying-my-lines quality that is jarringly juxtaposed with his laid-back delivery. At times, he underplays so much that he could seem lazy, but the performance is always in tune with the character and the scene — Thornton’s not an actor phoning in a performance; Buttermaker is a man who’s phoning in his life. It’s a tribute to the late Matthau that Thornton finds a way to make the role his own and add new dimensions to the character while remaining true to the spirit of what his predecessor created.
Bad News Bears is less like the usual Hollywood remake than it is like a faithful cover version of a favorite song. It doesn’t add a lot that’s new, but it hits all the notes we remember from when we were younger, and everyone involved has a good time reliving those memories.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Bad News Bears / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()