In 1976, I was eight years old and my parents took me to see The Bad News Bears. It was something of a revelation. I had never heard swearing like that before, especially coming from the mouths of other children. The next-to-last line of dialogue - ”You can take your apology and your trophy and shove it straight up your ass!” – is one I’ve never forgotten. Despite two sub par sequels and a forgettable television show, the original film remains a classic. I’ve seen it several times over the years, most recently about a month ago. The idea of a remake made me somewhat apprehensive. Why redo something that was done so perfectly the first time?
Director Richard Linklater (School of Rock) has nevertheless tried. He’s about as perfect a candidate as I can think of, but the new Bad News Bears just doesn’t measure up.
There aren’t many actors I can think of who could play the part of boozing baseball coach Morris Buttermaker as well as Walter Matthau did. Bill Murray and Billy Bob Thornton are the only sensible choices. Fortunately, Thornton signed on. In the early scenes, Buttermaker (formerly a pool cleaner, now a rodent removal specialist) is hired to coach a team of Little League misfits. Marcia Gay Harden plays Liz Whitewood, the lawyer who slips Buttermaker a paycheck so that her less-than-athletic son will have a team to play on.
Buttermaker is a former pro player who would be considered washed up had he ever remotely reached his potential. He’s more interested in drinking beer and picking up women than he is in coaching a Little League team, but a buck’s a buck. The players have no skills whatsoever, a fact pointed out by Roy Bullock (Greg Kinnear), the self-absorbed coach of an opposing team. After a few humiliating losses, Buttermaker tracks down his ex-girlfriend’s daughter, Amanda Wurlitzer (Sammi Kraft), who really knows how to throw a ball. Later, she helps recruit Kelly Leak (Jeff Davies), a rebel with a talent for swinging a bat. The Bears suddenly start winning games and eventually face Bullock’s team in the playoffs.
There is nothing wrong per se with this new version of The Bad News Bears. Billy Bob Thornton is terrific as Morris Buttermaker, and he’s well supported by Greg Kinnear and Marcia Gay Harden. The kids are perfectly cast too, especially Timmy Deters, who plays Tanner, the angriest member of the team. He looks, sounds, and acts just like Chris Barnes, who memorably played the role in the 1976 version. Director Linklater paces the movie nicely, getting some undeniable laughs from the material. That said, the new version lacks the bite of what we saw in the mid-70’s.
The original Bad News Bears didn’t present the kids as sugar-coated cuties; instead, the children were obnoxious, foul-mouthed, and aggressive. The approach was groundbreaking (and probably more accurate than anyone would care to admit.) One of the problems with the remake is that so many other pictures – such as the recent Kicking & Screaming - have followed the Bears formula pretty closely. Kids who speak like adults no longer have the shock value they once did. If anything, they’ve become commonplace, on the screen and in real life. The humor of kids swearing or speaking in politically incorrect tones has worn off. It’s weird: where the original felt new and innovative, the remake feels stale and familiar.
Another thing I like so much about the ’76 version (directed by the late great Michael Ritchie and written by Bill Lancaster) is that it had a droll sense of humor. Funny bits came in under the radar; you had to watch closely to catch them. As the Bears’ season went on, lessons were learned by all the characters, but the script never called attention to them. They just sort of happened. The remake tries to meet modern-day expectations for a big screen comedy. The jokes often feel like they’re being set up rather than happening organically, and some of the story’s rough edges have been softened with the addition of “heart.” We see one disapproving parent do an about face after his son gets a hit, and the kid who could never catch a ball does so to great fanfare in the end. There’s also a difference in the way the Roy character gets his comeuppance. As played by Vic Morrow in 1976, the character knew he had done wrong but seemed to worry more about himself than the son he publicly berated. Kinnear’s Roy appears to genuinely feel bad about his actions, which makes him sympathetic. Roy is a guy who, for the satire to work, should never be sympathetic. He’s supposed to represent all that is wrong with pushy sports parents.
This remake was penned by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the guys who wrote Bad Santa. They seem like an obvious choice considering that film, with its not-so-angelic children and boozy protagonist, was a kindred spirit of The Bad News Bears. Sometimes remakes get slammed for veering away from the source material, but in this case the writers have adhered too closely to it. They’ve taken the general blueprint and inserted more modern day references. For example, in the original, the Bears were sponsored by Chico’s Bail Bonds. In the remake, their uniforms feature the logo of a gentleman’s club. There are dozens of similar examples. Same jokes, different punchlines. A few of the script’s new gags work, although it’s debatable whether they’re actually any better than those from Bill Lancaster’s screenplay.
Last, but not least, we get to that famous line: Take your apology and your trophy and shove it straight up your ass! The remake gets it all wrong. The line was originally spoken by Tanner, and it was done so in anger. Now it comes out of the mouth of a different character, who says it with uncertainty, almost as an afterthought. It’s hard not to compare the remake to the original, especially since I’m such a fan of the Walter Matthau/Tatum O’Neal version. If you’re going to remake a classic, you have to put a new spin on it, or at least make it feel new (as the updated Charlie and the Chocolate Factory did). The 2005 Bad News Bears is serviceable and not unpleasant to watch. But it’s also a remake that doesn’t really improve on the original in any way. If you haven’t seen the original, then maybe I’d recommend the new version to you. Then again, if you haven’t seen the original, by all means see it instead.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Bad News Bears is rated PG-13 for rude behavior, language throughout, some sexuality and thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.
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