What is it about being a man that makes everything so hard?
—Liz Whitewood (Marcia Gay Harden)
Billy Bob Thornton first appears in Bad News Bears in the basement. It’s dark. Rodents scurry over his feet to the stairway. He makes his way up to the kitchen, where he announces to the startled occupants, “You got a shitload a rats down there.”
It seems a good enough start for a Billy Bob Thornton movie. Within a minute, you get the drift. This guy he’s playing, Morris (the Blade) Buttermaker, is an ornery exterminator but also strangely resigned, smart enough to know he’s settled for a crap life, but too exhausted to do much about it. And so he cracks open a beer, checks his watch, and heads off to his next appointment in his yellow Cadillac convertible. At the Little League field, he meets with Liz (Marcia Gay Harden), the local lawyer who’s class-actioned her son Toby’s (Ridge Canipe) team into accepting any and all players. She checks Buttermaker and looks uptight-aghast right off: “Are you drinking!?” Of course not, he reassures her. Okay, she flutters, before launching into an explanation of his duties as the Bears’ new coach. They’re perfect for each other.
But their relationship is not the focus of this lackluster remake of the much-loved 1976 Walter Matthau movie. Instead, as in the original, the premise is Buttermaker’s salvation by affiliation with the baseball team made up of “misfits.” Of course, he doesn’t start off looking for anything like salvation. A former minor league player who once pitched 2/3 of an inning in the majors (“One of those times you just knew you had your shit working”), he describes his current situation like so: “I make a living killing rats so I can pay rent on a trailer.” Sarcastic, frustrated, and frequently drunk, he sees the Bears as one more obstacle as he tries to survive his day. “I got enthusiasm flying out my ass,” he proclaims.
The movie introduces his players according to type: they boast a range of abilities (one is in a wheelchair, another is overweight and slow, another short and puny, etc.) and backgrounds (“I got the damn League of Nations here,” Buttermaker grouses). The kids are less bothered by losing games—which they expect to do—than by the details of their ordeal: “There are too many gnats out here,” whines one kid during practice. Buttermaker observes their skills (“You guys swing like Helen Keller at a piñata party”) and makes a decision: no more practice. Instead, he fills up their time otherwise, dragging them along to help him exterminate (catching a couple of them spraying poison at each other, he scolds, “Stop it, that’s shit’s expensive!”) and teaching little Timmy Lupus (Tyler Patrick Jones) to mix vodka martinis at a pool party.
Eventually, all this poking around will give way to team effort and games-won montages. This after Buttermaker recruits a great pitcher, his ex’s daughter, Amanda (Sammi Kane Kraft, a real life Little League pitcher) and a great hitter, long-haired, just-out-of-juvie skater boi Kelly (Jeffrey Davies), who has a crush on Amanda. The other kids keep on for the aren’t-they-cute effect, as the film is vaguely nostalgic for a time when little kids pronouncing obscenities was considered hilarious mischief. Worse, Buttermaker’s efforts to “get down” with his token black player, Ahmad Abdul Rahim (Kenneth “K.C.” Harris), lead to slogany appreciation for the struggle (“Don’t trust whitey”) and the requisite “the shizzle.”
As all of this suggests, even as a remake, Bad News Bears is surprisingly unimaginative, given director Richard Linklater’s previous ingenuity, in films like School of Rock, Waking Life, and of course, Slacker. Sadly, the new film’s standout aspect is its spectacularly incoherent editing. It hardly seems to matter what scene follows which. That’s not to say Buttermaker is wholly without a trajectory, or that you can’t figure it out by observing his relationships with Liz (with whom he does end up in bed, after she confesses her attraction to “the bad-boy, sexy scumbag” type) and the other notable adult in the film, the rival team’s coach Bullock (Greg Kinnear).
Bullock’s childish behavior might make Buttermaker seem relatively adult by comparison, but the contest is hardly worth the time it takes on screen. Bullock complains that Buttermaker is irresponsible, dishonest, and lazy. Bullock cheats, fumes, and fusses. The distinction between the men appears to be something about principle—Buttermaker ends up having a couple, where Bullock reveals he will use his own son to cheat to win a Little League championship—but the line is pretty thin. More to the point, it doesn’t matter. Where Matthau and Tatum O’Neal worked a moment when adult redemption by association with children (who really wanted to be nice children, not little hellions) seemed a worthy ideal, now it all seems quaint. Or creepy.