Screens Winning isn't everything

Linklater's Bad News Bears keeps the "hood" in childhood

"Ain't no doubt about it, lady. You got a shitload'a rats down there."

With that opening line, The Bad News Bears announces that it will be no watered-down remake, contrary to the suspicions of many who hold the grumpy original film close to their hearts.

The differences are revealed in small but telling ways that illuminate some of the very strange contradictions in contemporary American sensibilities. Start with the fact that the original film, which got away with attitudes that wouldn't pass the PC test today, was rated PG; this one, which some will claim is tamer, rates a PG-13. (Viewers may be surprised just how much cursing sneaks under that PG-13 wire.) How is it that our culture has moved in two directions at once, allowing so much of what was once deemed off-limits for young viewers (the 2005 Bears is bursting with silicone, for instance, although nipples are never seen), while becoming so prudish when it comes to humor that might acknowledge that the world remains full of bigotry?

Billy Bob Thornton replaces Walter Mathau as the not-quite-lovable crank of a coach in Richard Linklater's Bad News Bears.

A couple of examples:

In 1976, Walter Matthau's Morris Buttermaker was at least superficially something of a racist, making jokes at the expense of the non-Anglo kids on his team; these days, jokes about race are permissible only if the target isn't a member of a big movie-going demographic. It's fine, in other words, for Billy Bob Thornton's Buttermaker to mistakenly call an Armenian kid an "Aztec." (It's also really funny, and there's never any hint that the character's cluelessness is an attitude endorsed by the film.)

In 1976, the Bears' coach gave the players beer after the season's last game. It was an essential ingredient for the story's final confrontation between Little League warriors, with the Yankees drunk on hypocritical good sportsmanship and the Bears swigging down a big "screw you." These days, the beer is non-alcoholic (and rumor has it that while the MPAA wouldn't permit scenes of the coach swilling hard liquor straight from the bottle, it was fine for him to pour it into his non-alcoholic suds.)

Director Richard Linklater has made only one sequel in his career (Before Sunset), but in a way this film brings that total to three: In the guise of a remake, Bears is a follow-up both to Thornton's hilariously nasty Bad Santa (written by the team that wrote this film) and Linklater's lovable School of Rock. All the ingredients of these films are present here (there's even a dwarf at one point, though he's not in an elf costume), but Bears has a flavor all its own.

Its mood, for instance, is remarkably faithful to its inspiration without being slavish. For most adults, kids are kids. But the Bears cast is a world away from School of Rock: They're distinct characters instead of generic types, but they clearly hail from the other side of the tracks. They have filthy mouths, are prone to fighting, and don't think twice when Coach takes them to Hooters after practice. (The T&A-oriented club is Thornton's de facto office, and its bimbo waitstaff supplies the team's most vocal support in the bleachers.)

Bad News Bears

Dir. Richard Linklater; writ. Bill Lancaster (original screenplay), Glenn Ficarra & John Requa; feat. Billy Bob Thornton, Greg Kinnear, Marcia Gay Harden, Sammi Kraft, Ridge Canipe, Brandon Craggs (PG-13)

Linklater nods repeatedly to the original, including reworking the themes from Carmen as electronica for the soundtrack. But he also improves on it: At a turning point in the original, Matthau apologizes to the team for being "an asshole," and when that doesn't motivate them, he yells until they get in gear. Here, Linklater approaches Thornton's cliché moment of remorse the way a generic Hollywood film would, pushing in slowly until the actor is in a sappy closeup. When the Lifetime approach doesn't work, Linklater turns it on its head, leaping back for Buttermaker's announcement that it doesn't matter if the team has voted to disband - this is a dictatorship, he announces, and "I'm Hitler!" Motivational speech complete.

The new film is enjoyable as a mainstream comedy, milking Thornton's nasty charm for all it's worth, but it also has a potent subversive streak for those willing to look for it. These are kids, after all, who defiantly refuse to buy the competitive mindset they're being sold. In the championship game, even the opposing team joins in a brief mutiny against the winning-is-everything attitude its coaches embrace. (Now's a good time to mention Greg Kinnear's absolutely perfect performance as the Yankee's alpha-male coach.)

We won't spoil the end for readers who don't know the story, but it's intriguing to see that the film's last shot very self-consciously sets an American flag over the action. The first film did this, too, but here the gesture seems a tribute not only to the baseball diamond but to cantankerous losers in the political arena - to those who, even in defeat, cling to their individualism or unfashionable values instead of a soul-killing status quo.

By John DeFore