Bad News Bears

  Bad News Bears
"Sweep the leg."

© 2005, Paramount Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Morris Buttermaker (Billy Bob Thornton) is a drunken rodent exterminator who accepts an offer to coach a little league baseball team for extra money. The team, known as the Bears, is made up of all the unwilling, disabled, and messed up kids around, giving Buttermaker more reason to drink heavily and blow off the season. However, when Bullock (Greg Kinnear), an egotistical coach, rubs Buttermaker's nose in his team's loser status, Buttermaker angrily assembles the squad and attempts to teach them the basics, along with a few tricks and scams, to take the team from the bottom of the standings to the championship game.

Almost 30 years ago, Michael Ritchie's "The Bad News Bears" set the gold standard for underdog kids movies. It remains a strong, potent baseball comedy classic to this day. Paramount Pictures, eager to restart the successful franchise with new blood, has brought in Billy Bob Thornton and the writing team behind his 2003 sleeper smash "Bad Santa" to update the Bears and ratchet up the objectionable material. They were better off leaving well enough alone.

Now simply titled "Bad News Bears" (IMDb listing), this "remix" (according to director Richard Linklater) works on both sides of the remake fence. On one side, many sequences of the new "Bears" have been directly lifted from the original without much change, which makes it doubly depressing to see them bungled so badly. On the other side, the new material seems to go against the film's team spirit premise.

The screenplay takes great time fleshing out the adults of the picture, often at the expense of screen time for the kids. The appeal of "Bears" lies with the ragtag ballplayers and how they interact with Buttermaker. The new "Bears" gives Buttermaker a relationship with a team mother (Marcia Gay Harden), and really opens up the role of opposing coach Bullock, who, handed to Greg Kinnear, holds none of the reluctant threat Vic Morrow was able to create back in 1976. With the majority of the focus off the Bears, Linklater speeds through their scenes when it comes time for the team to take over. This leaves the film feeling both rushed and dragged-out all at once.

It doesn't seem, though, that this remake was ever intended to be about the kids. From the very first moments of the film, it's the Billy Bob Thornton Show, and his brand of obscenity-laden improv is a tired bag of tricks. "Bad Santa" had one good joke and it was pounded into the ground. "Bears" is that same joke continued, and it's a laborious process to watch the film stop dead to wait for Thornton to come up with a classic comedy line (that never seems to come). The magic of the original "Bears" was Walter Matthau's ability to let the kids lead the way in the humor department, while he injected perfectly-timed comic bombs. Thornton just steamrolls his way through the film, rarely allowing the fun and comedy to breathe.

Thornton's performance is indicative of the entire "Bears" remake, which desires to push buttons by being so obnoxiously offensive. If the 1976 version detailed politically incorrect juvenile delinquents coming together to share mischief, the new "Bears" resembles a failed Spike TV pilot in the way it tries to impress with its collection of Helen Keller jokes, kid-in-wheelchair punchlines, and Hooters restaurant visits. "Bears" wants the audience to be bowled over by the irreverence, but the vulgarity is harshly forced. The new "Bears" attempts to one-up its eye-raising 1976 counterpart by increasing the shock value of the Bears' behavior. The only effect it seems to have is to bring down the joy of the central premise. Pre-teen cursing isn't nearly as funny as it was 30 years back, but the new "Bears" appears to think that having the child actors curse, then getting kneed in the groin is a way to fix that problem.

While the site of Buttermaker and the Bears singing along to Eric Clapton's "Cocaine" is a nice little sight gag, and Linklater's incorporation of Bizet's "Carmen" for the soundtrack remains a highlight (though in slightly alternative versions), there's just too much disappointment and miscalculation at hand to enjoy much else. The final blow comes with the new "Bears" turning motorcycle-driving, delinquent superstar Kelly Leak into a customary, flavorless skateboarding punk, thus eliminating his distinctive bad boy appeal (newbie actor Jeff Davies has nothing on the immortal Jackie Earle Haley). Linklater, who scored so highly working with kids and jokes in 2003's "School of Rock," is out of his element with "Bad News Bears," and no amount of overcompensation and audience pandering is going to rescue this limp remake ... er, remix.

Filmfodder Grade: D+

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