Judge Brendan Babish used to play Little League baseball for an abusive, alcoholic coach. His dad's really mellowed out since then, though.
"Baseball's hard. You can love it but, believe me, it don't always love you back. It's kinda like dating a German chick."
After directing and co-writing Before Sunset, one of the best movies of 2004, Richard Linklater chose to remake a classic of '70s cinema, The Bad News Bears. Though Bad News Bears is a departure from Linklater's more mature vehicles like Before Sunset and Waking Life, it is a return to kid-centric fare like School of Rock. That film was a huge commercial success, but its humor was muted by Linklater's attempt to pander to a young audience. Will Bad News Bears also compromise its notoriously base ideals to bring in the kids?
Facts of the Case
Morris Buttermaker (Billy Bob Thornton, Bad Santa) is a surly exterminator with a drinking problem. He was also once a major league pitcher (for 2/3 of an inning). Lured in by an easy payday, he agrees to coach the Bears, a little league team made up of rag-tag kids with so little talent they would not even be allowed to play organized baseball if the parent of one hadn't filed a lawsuit against the city. Buttermaker drinks bourbon during practice, swears at the children, and passes out on the mound. In their first game the Bears are embarrassed by their rivals, the arrogant, and aptly named, Yankees. Disgusted with his team's performance, Buttermaker recruits two ringers to join the Bears: his flame-throwing daughter Amanda (Sammi Kane Kraft) and the brooding power-hitter Kelly Leak (Jeffrey Davies). As the Bears' play on the field improves the kids grow close to their irascible coach and he develops a fondness for them. However, petty squabbles begin to drive the team apart just before their rematch with the Yankees for the league championship.
Richard Linklater is developing quite a career for himself. This is easy to overlook because he produces few box office hits, but he is clearly one of the more original and versatile filmmakers working in America today. No matter how lackluster a project sounds (I don't think anyone was clamoring for a remake of The Bad News Bears), Linklater's involvement is enough to arouse interest. Though his career suffers the occasional disappointment (The Newton Boys), Linklater's work is consistently engaging and original. In my opinion, he is only one more great movie away from achieving greatness himself.
To achieve greatness, a filmmaker needs to direct three unequivocally great movies. It is actually a rare achievement for a filmmaker to produce three truly great films in their career. Outside of the legends (Spielberg, Scorsese, Altman) there are few filmmakers who quality. However, Richard Linklater has already produced two great films: Before Sunset and Dazed and Confused. I am also fond of the underrated dramas Suburbia and Tape, but neither of these are great films. Before Sunrise is very good, but a tad too precocious to be great. Richard Linklater is only 45, which is young considering his impressive body of work. I'm nearly certain he will make another great film before he retires. Bad News Bears is not that great film, but it is still pretty good.
It is especially good considering that it is a film with a cast made up predominantly of children. In 2003's School of Rock, Linklater took one of Hollywood's great vulgarians, Jack Black (High Fidelity), and sanitized his performance to make it friendly for children (I knew not to get my hopes up when I saw the movie had a PG rating). Though School of Rock was successful, it was pedantic and cloying, traits common to many films that involve large groups of children. Though Bad News Bears is sporadically guilty of the same infractions, it is rated PG-13, and employs enough blue humor to overcome its overly dramatized and sentimental ending.
Like Jack Black, Billy Bob Thornton excels at playing characters that are obscene and uncouth. But unlike Black's chaste performance as a substitute teacher in School of Rock, Thornton's gift for vulgarity is not wasted here. I don't think there has ever been this much swearing in a PG-13 movie before. Not that there's anything wrong with that. That is, unless you are a champion of good taste and politically correct humor. If that is the case, let me make this very clear: you are not going to like Bad News Bears. Buttermaker drinks alcohol in front of the team then passes out during practice. He makes fun of the children's nationalities and disabilities. He gets a local strip club to sponsor the team. And this is the movie's hero.
The movie's villain is Coach Bulluck (Greg Kinnear, Auto Focus). Bulluck is one of those parents who lives vicariously through his child's athletic achievements. His disdain for Buttermaker and the Bears is masked in condescension, and few actors can condescend as well as Kinnear. Watching Bulluck strut and preen around the field in his ubiquitous Under Armor wardrobe is one of the finer touches Linklater has brought to the remake.
While the first hour of Bad News Bears is bawdy and fun, the last act takes an ill-advised turn towards the dramatic. In an attempt to create melodrama (where none is needed), Buttermaker inexplicably turns on his team, sniping at his daughter and disrespecting his players. This tension is clearly created so the movie can end with a warm reconciliation, but this jars badly with the irreverence of the movie's first hour. Bad News Bears could have been great, but because of its sentimentalized ending, it has to settle for being merely good.
The picture and sound on the DVD are both acceptable. There are plenty of extras, and most are at least mildly entertaining. The commentary with Richard Linklater and screenplay co-writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa is fun. Then men all seem to get along and they tell quality anecdotes about the film's production. There are also nearly a dozen deleted scenes. About half of these are filler, but some, especially the five-minute scene of Buttermaker playing catch with the paraplegic Hooper, are meandering but funny. All in all, Paramount has done a good job putting together this DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Why is it so rare to see a movie that is funny throughout? Why do so many comedies feel the need to tack on a dramatic, heart-warming ending? Is being funny not enough to satisfy most audiences? Though I thoroughly enjoyed the first hour of Bad News Bears, I had a nagging feeling that at some point the humor would dry up and Linklater would begin pulling on the heartstrings. I tried to tell myself that it might not happen, and I almost began to believe it, but then, just where you would expect it, Buttermaker has a falling out with his daughter. Buttermaker then has a falling out with his team. The teams begins fighting with each other. And the humor is replaced by the false suspense of whether or not they will reconcile during the final game.
Nobody watching Bad News Bears cares if Buttermaker can mend his relationship with his daughter. They just want to laugh.
For the first hour, Bad News Bears is great. The last half hour introduces a good deal of unwelcome drama. Ultimately, the film works, but it could have been much better.
The Bears are acquitted on all major charges, but Linklater is guilty of unnecessary pathos.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Richard Linklater and Screenwriters
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