The Bad News Bears

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For those of a certain age, remaking Bad News Bears is nothing short of sacrilege. Walter Matthau’s sad-sack alcoholic Little League coach Morris Buttermaker was one of the defining slob heroes of the ’70s, and opened the door for a wave of brilliantly foul-mouthed sports comedies that included Slap Shot and Caddyshack. But if anyone is attempting to bring the anti-authoritarian spirit of The Bad News Bears into the Bush era, it might as well be Richard Linklater. Having cast a knowing eye on teen debauchery in Dazed and Confused and coaxed a stellar performance out of Jack Black in School of Rock, the director is just the man to launch a surprise spitwad attack in the current culture wars.

Rude, crude and un-PC, his remake is as profane as you can get and still receive a PG-13 rating. There’s nothing wholesome about it.

Joining forces with the men behind the equally brash Bad Santa — writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, and star Billy Bob Thornton — Linklater makes his intentions clear from the start: His camera pokes into an apple-pie perfect suburban house where a June Cleaver-style mom screams in horror at a gaggle of rats swarming from her basement. She’s hired the worst man for the job: exterminator and former pro baseball player Morris Buttermaker (Thornton), the kind of guy who keeps a six-pack and a fifth of whiskey at the ready in case he needs a mid-morning boilermaker or two. If Buttermaker is a bad exterminator, he’s an even worse Little League coach, a job forced on him by an uptight lawyer (Marcia Gay Harden). Buttermaker must cobble together a team out of the dregs of the league, a motley crew of out-of-shape, timid and delinquent minors. The only thing worse than his apathy is the team’s skill level, which he improves somewhat by recruiting an ace pitcher, his estranged tomboy daughter Amanda (Sammi Kane Kraft). And in his drive to beat smug opposing coach Roy Bullock (Greg Kinnear), the Hooters-frequenting Buttermaker finds himself actually forming a bond with the little freaks and geeks.

Like the original, this film isn’t so much about the all-American drive to win as it is about the national pastime of insult-hurling. To that end, you couldn’t ask for a better anti-hero than Thornton. He brings a different edge to the character than the W.C. Fields-like Matthau: Thornton’s Buttermaker comes from the world of strippers, Harleys and bar fights. “I haven’t paid for sex in years,” he helpfully explains to the kids at one point. Ficarra and Requa back him up with a script that makes the most of the past 30 years of pop culture references, everything from the Atkins diet to, in a hilarious underage sing-along, Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine.” Best of all, Linklater proves again that he can direct children to act as naturally on-screen as they do off of it. Most of the kids who play the Bears have never acted before, and Linklater’s roving camera picks up nothing but casual, unforced behavior from all of them. Unlike Will Ferrell’s recent kiddie baseball flick Kicking and Screaming, nothing the kids say feels like a scripted one-liner, and there’s plenty of screen time devoted to watching them actually play the game. Forget Ferrell and Adam Sandler’s brain-numbing Longest Yard remake: This is the sports comedy of the summer.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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