“The Bad News Bears” is at its best when, like all good major league pitchers, it isn’t afraid to get a little mean. Clemens, Pedro, Unit, Schilling, they’ve all got that ‘don’t mess with me’ vibe that makes them dangerous, even when they’re getting shelled. Likewise, when the movie lets its characters loose and unleashes their inner demons, it’s a lot of fun. The problem is that those moments are more fleeting than they should be.
Billy Bob Thornton stars as Morris Buttermaker, a former big leaguer and current drunk who works as an exterminator. He signs on to run a little league team that only exists because Liz Whitewood (Marcia Gay Harden), the mother of one of the players, filed a lawsuit preventing the league from forbidding these kids from playing. The kids, to put it mildly, are scrubs. One of them is actually in a wheelchair. Buttermaker is so stressed over the prospects of the season ahead that he passes out drunk on the pitcher’s mound in one of their first practices. He makes up for this later, though, by taking the team to Hooter’s after a game.
Knowing his team needs help, he enlists Amanda Whurlitzer (Sammi Kraft, a stud pitcher in real life), the daughter of one of Buttermaker’s old flames, to be their ace pitcher. Amanda, in turn, helps rope in Kelly Leak (Jeff Davies), a burnout punk who can hit the ball a mile. Soon the Bears start winning, and wind up in the championship against the Yankees and their histrionic jerk of a coach Roy Bullock (Greg Kinnear). Bullock likes to win, even if it means humiliating his son on the field. Hey, at least he’s not killing anybody in order to win a game, at least as far as we know.
The story stays extremely faithful to the 1976 original, with a cameo by Chico’s Bail Bonds and everything. The relationship between Buttermaker and Amanda is unchanged, and Bullock’s outburst in the final game is here as well, though it’s toned down considerably. Tanner (played by Timmy Deters) is still a foul mouthed, fight-friendly pipsqueak, though he doesn’t get anything close to his famous “Jews, spics, niggers, and a booger-eating moron” line that he had in the original. Davies, however, is far too non-threatening looking to play a hood like Kelly Leak.
The Yankees are well cast; they all look like miniature versions of Chipper Jones, with that same smug little smirk Jones always seems to have on his face. Kinnear can play the jerk as well as anyone, but his mannerisms are off the mark here. He’s not unlikable so much as pathetic, which makes him far less imposing as a villain. Harden’s character isn’t well fleshed out, either. She veers from nosy do-gooder to horny divorcee to clueless parent in the blink of an eye.
Thornton doesn’t fare much better. He’s as uneven as everyone else, going from lazy slacker to screaming hardass in about a second and a half. If that transformation was supposed to be his attempt at showing the kids that there’s more to the game than winning, it wasn’t well executed. Richard Linklater, who’s directed kids before, and directed them well (“School of Rock”), seems unable to rein in the kids or the grown-ups, even though it looks as though he could have gotten both good performances and a little unruliness from all of them. It was all fine when it had that aforementioned dose of mean, but once that was lost, the movie was, too.
It’s unfortunate that “The Bad News Bears” turned out the way it did. On paper, this had major potential. Thornton can play cranky as well as anyone, Linklater has shown that he’s good with kids, and the source material is gold. So what went wrong? They lost their nerve in the end, it appears, and chose to play it safe, which is the last thing in the world that the Bears themselves would do.(3 / 5)
This review originally ran July 22, 2005 on Bullz-Eye.com.