“Billy is one of the few actors today I think who you could imagine filling Matthau’s shoes. He’s very different, in a way, but he’s very appropriate for Buttermaker.” Providing commentary for the DVD of their remake of Bad News Bears, director Richard Linklater and writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa tend toward self-affirmation. They know their ideas (including casting Thornton) are good, and, recording the commentary just two and a half weeks after the film opened in 2005, they’re pleased that they haven’t “caught any shit” for choices like the kid in the wheelchair (“He’s a positive character”) or Buttermaker’s incessant bad behavior. Compared to the “clean-cut parents,” observes Linklater, the coach “becomes a better character, a morally grounded character.”
His journey to this state is erratic. Linklater’s movie introduces Morris (the Blade) Buttermaker as an ornery loser, poking around a basement for rodents. Several scurry over his feet to the stairway, and he makes his way up to the kitchen, where he announces to the startled occupants, “You got a shitload a rats down there.” Buttermaker is a former baseball player, now an exterminator, 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 nonalcoholic beer, pours out the contents and fills it with liquor. He checks his watch and heads off to his next appointment in his yellow Cadillac convertible.
This next stop is where the bulk of his moral transformation (or recognition, because he’s always a good guy, just lost), at the Little League field. Here he meets with Liz (Marcia Gay Harden), the uptight local lawyer who’s class-actioned her son Toby’s (Ridge Canipe) team into accepting any and all players. She checks out Buttermaker and looks aghast right off: “Are you drinking!?” Of course not, he reassures her, pointing to the can’s label. Okay, she flutters, before launching into an explanation of his duties as the Bears’ new coach. She’s anxious, he’s angry. They’re perfect for each other.
Linklater and the writers’ fundamental delight in the film and good-natured squabbling over process ground their recollections. As Linklater points out, “Okay, so this is the bitch fest, for all you listeners out there. This is where they get to attack me for every cut, every trim,” and, as the writers protest, he adds, “But the script was just long.” In fact, the movie maintains a leisurely pace, granting stand-up comedians’ pauses for jokes and oddly lengthy takes of kids on the baseball field.
As in the original film, the premise is Buttermaker’s salvation by affiliation with the baseball team made up of “misfits.” 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 filmmakers are similarly low-key in their enthusiasm. The DVD production folks anticipate interested collectors, as the its plethora of featurettes include deleted scenes and a couple of outtakes, as well as the making-of doc, “At Bat with the Bears”; “Writing the Bad News Bears” (Ficarra and Requa repeat some observations they make for the commentary); “Scouting for the Big Leagues” (featuring casting director Joseph Middleton); and “Spring Training” (where the stars and Linklater discuss learning to play for the film).
While it’s likely the film will have a happier life (and longer) on DVD than in theaters, such enhancements are mostly valuable for the access they grant to Linklater, who is a terrific storyteller and — no matter what you think of this effort — articulate, innovative filmmaker. He recalls a woman who approached him “after one of those lame test screenings you have to do. She was a parent, she was completely offended by the movie and would never take her kid to it, though the language and all the values of it sucked,” who appreciates one corny sex joke. American culture, man, it’s all about the hypocrisy.
This is the film’s primary point, as Buttermaker’s ignorance both makes and undermines it. His players are introduced as types, and he treats them accordingly: they boast a range of abilities (aside from the kid in the wheelchair, one is overweight and slow, another short and puny, two speak only Spanish) and backgrounds. “I got the damn League of Nations here,” Buttermaker grouses, at which point Linklater jokes with Ficarra and Requa about making him a “bit of a racist,” and they protest, he’s “racist and trying to be cool, liberal and progressive.” (Strangely, Linklater goes on to overexplain the joke when the black kid on the team announces he likes Mark McGwire and Buttermaker stutters, “But he’s a white!” Says Linklater, helpfully, “Like a black guy couldn’t like Mark McGwire!”)
Buttermaker’s team is less bothered by losing games — which the kids expect to do — than by the details of their ordeal (these tediously laid out in a series of montages. (As one of the writers notes, writing a montage “is the worst thing as a writer you have to do, just write little things like ‘He doesn’t catch the ball,’ ‘He does catch the ball.'”) “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.
Following some more montageing, Buttermaker finds a sponsor for the team (Chico’s Bail Bonds) and 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.”
Even for a remake Bad News Bears is surprisingly unimaginative. Worse, its editing seems addled. That’s not to say Buttermaker lacks a trajectory. “Underneath all this bad behavior and language,” says Linklater, “He’s really like a good guy, or, down there somewhere. You could say that about anybody.” Though Buttermaker’s lesson-learning has to do with his generosity with the kids, it’s framed by 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). This guy’s childish behavior makes Buttermaker seem relatively adult, but the contest is hardly worth the time it takes on screen. Bullock complains that Buttermaker is irresponsible, dishonest, and lazy, then 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 seemed a worthy aim, now it seems quaint, tired, and a little creepy.