An affectionately profane and largely faithful remake of the 1976 Walter Matthau film of the same name, "Bad News Bears" invites comparison to 2003's wonderfully funny and smart "School of Rock
." They both share the same director, Richard Linklater, for one, and a similar premise, in which a hard-drinking softie finds himself in charge of and teaching a group of diverse fifth graders. Billing themselves as family entertainment, they also both go out on a limb with a fearless PG-13 rating that treats all of the charactersadults and children alikewith the respect and realism they deserve and so rarely receive in most watered-down kid pics. Going up against each other for no other reason than these undoubted similarities, the music-themed "School of Rock
" wins hands down. That film was like lightning in a bottle, in which all aspects of its production came together to create genuine comedic magic that could speak to all age groups.
"Bad News Bears" is harsher and more graphic in its subject matter, and therefore not quite as unabashedly likable as "School of Rock
," making it a veritable nightmare for parents of unsuspecting six-year-olds who might wander into the theater expecting a Disney-style family flick. For those around twelve and up, however, the picture comes as a refreshing, non-guilty respite to the false sentimentality and safe humor of any number of PG kids movies. Taking the more adult rating to its limits with a barrage of nonstop foul language and politically incorrect sexual, ethnic and racial humor, "Bad News Bears" stands out in a crowded marketplace of prepubescent sports films like the forgettable "Kicking & Screaming
" and the atrocious "Rebound
." It's slyer, it's not as predictable in its expected adherence to the genre formula, and it's at least ten times funnier (compared to the laughless "Rebound
," it may be fifty times funnier). It's safe to say that grown-ups will likely find more to appreciate in its jokes than younger audiences, who will spend most of the time in awe that characters around their own age are saying "shit," "goddamn," and "bastard," to name but a few PG-13-level words.
The general plot is of the bare-bones variety, in which one-time Major League baseball player Buttermaker (Billy Bob Thornton), now a crass, unapologetic drunk, ends up becoming the coach of an underdog Little League baseball team. The ragtag group of rowdy, unskilled players start the season off on a losing streak, but as they bond with Buttermaker and go into heavy-duty training, they gradually improve their game. Helping in the cause is 12-year-old tomboy Amanda (Sammi Kraft), an ace pitcher who shares a dysfunctional sort-of father-daughter relationship with Buttermaker, and moped-driving cool kid Kelly (Jeff Davies).
Mostly, "Bad News Bears" is an excuse to pair up the bedraggled, acerbic Billy Bob Thornton with a slew of trash-talking kids to see if sparks fly. Under the direction of Richard Linklater and the balls-to-the-wall writing of "Bad Santa" scribes Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, they often, but not consistently, do. Upon meeting his team, made up of white, black, Armenian, Spanish, and even quadriplegic players, Buttermaker dryly comments that it's "like the United Nations." Very funny. In lieu of practicing, he takes them with him to his rodent-removal job. And after their first victory, they celebrate at Hooter's. As ballsy as "Bad News Bears" is, there is an underlying, unforced innocence about the whole thing, perhaps because older kids in the audience will probably relate to the honesty portrayed in their onscreen peers more than they normally do in similar, safer cinematic offerings.
Unlike the tight pacing of "School of Rock
," "Bad News Bears" begins to lag in its second half (at almost two hours, it's thirty minutes too long). Because any viewer who has ever seen a sports movie knows from the get-go where the story is headed, director Richard Linklater takes too long to get there, treading one two many times over repeated jokes involving physical combat on the baseball field and the colorful four-letter language of its kid characters. The climactic championship, while well-shot and less obvious in its outcome than one might be anticipating, simply drags to an interminable length, seeming as if the entire game has been filmed in real time. Finally, a subplot involving a potential romance between Buttermaker and Ms. Whitewood (Marcia Gay Harden), the tight-vested busybody mother of one of his charges who discovers an unexpected passion for bad boys, doesn't have any idea what to do with itself and just wastes more screen time.
At the center of nearly every scene (and for good reason), Billy Bob Thornton absolutely owns the film as Coach Buttermaker, getting most of the biggest laughs with his acidic line deliveries and laid-back swagger. Interestingly, this role is but an extension on the one he played in 2003's superior "Bad Santa
," and the two films could make an ideal double feature for those searching for proof that Thornton is a usually-untapped comedic genius. As Ms. Whitewood, it is nice to see Marcia Gay Harden (2003's "Mystic River
") in a lighter, sillier part than she is accustomed to, but she simply doesn't have a whole lot to do. Rounding out the adult cast, Greg Kinnear (2004's "Godsend
") is just okay as rival coach Bullock. The younger cast members, meanwhile, most with little past acting credits to their names, are unequivocally solid, with newcomer Sammi Kraft beguilingly taking over the Tatum O'Neal role of tomboy Samantha while making it her own.
Uneven but admirable in what it sets out and mostly succeeds at doing, "Bad News Bears" delights in its unashamed vulgarity and spiritedly laugh-inducing wickedness. For once not syrupy in the least, all the while offering up a few morals along the way about teamwork and friendship, the film makes a memorable place for itself in the annals of kids sports features. It isn't a home runthere are a few too many slow and aimless spots for thatbut it is a respectable base hit. If for nothing else, "Bad News Bears" deserves credit for trying to be a little different and a lot more truthful than such a worn-out genre commonly permits.