Devils In The Outfield

Cheering section: Billy Bob Thorton flanked by happy players in 'Bad News Bears'
Paramount Pictures

It's hard now to imagine the jolt that The Bad News Bears delivered in 1976, with its prepubescent baseball players swearing more often than their alcoholic coach, spouting racial epithets, and otherwise acting their age by trying to seem older than they were. As influential as Jaws in its way, and nearly as perfect, the film unsentimentally sided with its losing team of misfits and minorities against overzealous sports dads, allowing the kids to humanize Coach Buttermaker, a former minor-leaguer whom Walter Matthau played as being a little too resigned to the wry realities of life.

"Listen, Lupus," he said near the end of the film, turning to the Bears' weakest and most reluctant player. "You didn't come into this life just to sit around on a dugout bench, did you? Now get your ass out there and do the best you can."

Buttermaker might have been giving himself that pep talk: His transformation into someone who gives a shit is the serious core of an irreverent comedy. In the end, the coach lets Lupus play because excellence is overrated.

When the same speech turns up in the 2005 Bad News Bears remake, rejiggered in the looser mouth of Billy Bob Thorton, you know the filmmakers understand the material. Crucially, the new Bears are still the product of a parent's lawsuit, a team created for boys who can't get on the other teams in the San Fernando Valley. Bribed into coaching, Thorton's Buttermaker views this social experiment with boozy complacence until the children play their season opener and can't get the initial three outs required to take their first turn at bat. (Buttermaker ends up forfeiting out of compassion.)

The comeback story that ensues never once compromises, never wavers and says, Hey, maybe winning really is everything. True to the 1976 film, the new version departs from countless imitators (including two Bears sequels and a TV series starring Jack Warden, which gave us the euphemism "dinkus"). The underdog blueprint has been darkened: Replacing Matthau's fried curmudgeon with a lazed-out rascal (and substituting an Arkansas accent for a New York one), Thorton is an even better stand-in for washed-up, checked-out white America. His Bears are the kind of stigmatized liberal program he'd probably hate his tax dollars for funding, and the team is a rainbow of tweaked stereotypes: The nerdy stats-cruncher is now Indian, the lone black player worships Mark McGwire, Engelberg is on the Atkins diet, and the roster has expanded to include an Armenian and a paraplegic in a motorized wheelchair.

That last stroke of tasteless genius is a good example of Bears satire: The presence of a boy in a wheelchair rolling laps with his teammates makes malicious fun of the notion that "everyone can play." But then the film embraces the notion anyway, and sends him out onto the field behind Lupus. By removing the question of ability from the film's moral logic, Bad News Bears manages to avoid even mentioning affirmative action or Title IX, while at the same time cutting to the emotional heart of those programs and defending the impulses behind them. Buttermaker is awakened by the experience of teaching, not winning; so of course he supports full participation--that just means a bigger party afterward.

The new Bears might be a best-case scenario for remakes that shouldn't have been made. Director-producer Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, The School of Rock) has always owed something to the anarchic mellow achieved by '76 director Michael Ritchie. Now Linklater's relaxed comic timing gives Thorton the opportunity to be startling, and even when gags foul, they pleasantly whiz by. Screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who wrote Thorton's Bad Santa for the Coen brothers, are so faithful to the old film that the original screenwriter, the late Bill Lancaster (son of actor Burt), earns a co-credit. Even Bizet's Carmen makes a comeback on the soundtrack, this time with a hip-hop beat. (Taking nostalgia further, Paramount commissioned a Mad Magazine-style movie poster in homage to Jack Davis's '76 illustration.)

Some of the new twists are Sandler-film lame: How does the broke Buttermaker assemble a cheering section of female strippers for every game? The parents, meanwhile, have been redrawn as cartoons, forcing Greg Kinnear and Marcia Gay Harden to ham. But the new jokes have a surprisingly high batting average (nice use of "depantsing"), and the rolling comedy of inappropriateness keeps coming. "Baseball's hard," Buttermaker tells his young charges. "You can love it, but believe me, it doesn't always love you back. It's kind of like dating a German chick."

What's missing is the naturalist poetry of the original--the hot dog stands, the sprinkler mist, the unruly power of the young performers. Mop-top shortstop Tanner Boyle still compensates for his lack of size with intrepid violence and jaw-dropping bigotry (he now calls the coach a "Jew bastard"). But he's cast to resemble the original actor without his shouting voice. The bad-ass ringers recruited by Buttermaker--an adolescent girl pitcher and a skater-boy outfielder--seem equally miscast, picked for their athletic skills rather than acting ability. They instantly dissolve next to the memory of fleeting teen icons Tatum O'Neal and Jackie Earle Haley. (It doesn't help that kids can no longer smoke in movies.)

Each of the other young actors makes an impression, though, and neatly fills the bases for Billy Bob Thorton's grand slam. His Buttermaker beans his players in the helmet with a baseball when he's drunk, maybe because he has to be meaner in an era when "Let's do it for the children" is a national joke. He tells the Armenian player to go ahead and lie to Dad, because, shit, "This is America." Candidly distinguishing between "role models" and mentors, the movie dares to lay claim to both patriotism and the national pastime--and just when overzealous sports dads seem to have taken over the country.

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