My oh my, but what mess has been made of THE BAD NEWS BEARS. Not that it was ever a classic, except in a minor sense for fans of Tatum O’Neal and Walter Matthau, but what Richard Linklater, a man capable of producing works of unorthodox beauty and beautiful complexity such as WAKING LIFE, has produced a morass here that inspires nothing so much as the eternal question, “Why?”.
To be fair, it’s not entirely Linklater’s fault, beyond accepting the assignment, that is. The script, and this is charity at its finest, is at best unfocused. It begins promisingly enough introducing us to Morris Buttermaker (Billy Bob Thornton, sporting a van dyke that has lost the will to live), a quondam professional baseball player and current pest exterminator plying his trade in a self-induced alcohol haze in the less hip part of southern California. It may be a comedown, but it gives him the opportunity to drink, chase strippers, and in the most affable way possible, offend the world at large. For reasons that are never made clear, he’s also the choice to coach a kid’s baseball team, the one the court ordered after one of the parents (Marcia Gay Harden, prissy, clueless and completely wasted here) successfully sued the league because it discriminated against players with no talent for the game. Hence Buttermaker is saddled with the stock issue team of losers, the fat kid, the disabled kid, the weird kid, the smart kid, the foul-mouthed kid and, of course, the kid who speaks no English. There’s a dwarf in there, too, at one point, but only for a gag that, like so many of them, goes nowhere. Rather than waste time training his gaggle of losers, he puts them to work exterminating ants and setting off smoke bombs to take out rats and other assorted vermin.
There are some genuinely funny moments trapped in this part of the film, as Buttermaker, who treats the kids the way he treats the adults, that is to say with bland contempt, uses practice sessions to teach them how to take a pitch to the head while chirping words of encouragement about what a great job they’re doing. The film peaks when he passes out and the kids roll him. Then something very odd happens. The script has Buttermaker actually start giving a gosh darn about these kids and for no readily apparent reason. He’s suddenly transformed from a health hazard to warm and fuzzy. Throw in new team members in Buttermaker’s estranged step-daughter with a killer pitching arm who is supposed to be twelve but looks 15 at least, and a hunky thrasher-slacker type with a way with the bat who looks is 16 if he’s a day and probably older, and the mess is almost complete.
The film skitters along picking up plot lines and then abandoning them in a vain attempt to find something worth showing once the warm and fuzzies have set in. The word flail comes to mind while watching the hectic pace and general chaos of plots popping in and out of existence with the verve and mystery that atoms show when obeying the more esoteric laws of physics. The presence of Greg Kinnear as a rabidly overachieving rival coach in very tight shorts isn’t explained until the film, making one of those desperate skitters, goes for psychological melodrama. It, along with the jokes rising from any other source, including Thornton once the warm and fuzzies sets in for no readily apparent reason and yes I am repeating myself, fall flat. Perhaps that’s why there is a running motif of post-game celebrations with the team at Hooter’s, in order to, ahem, round things out.
The spectacle of kids spouting obscenities may have been novel at one time, but here seems exactly what it is, shopworn and irrelevant. Even the kid actors who populate BAD NEWS BEARS, who might on some level enjoy being paid to indulge in potty mouth seem bored with the proceedings. And they should be.