Filmmaker Richard Linklater’s art house-multiplex split personality has yielded an eclectic resume that ranges from the brazenly experimental “Tape” to the mass appeal “School of Rock.”
Alternating between studio assignments and indie statements, he’s been on a five-year winning streak, delivering consistent quality at both ends of the commercial spectrum.
His impressive run continues with the charmingly subversive remake of “The Bad News Bears.” The movie, which teams the director with Billy Bob Thornton in “Bad Santa” mode, doesn’t necessarily improve on the 1976 original. But it certainly matches it in spirit and mirth.
Instead of scaling back on the irreverent aspects of the youth baseball fable, Linklater ventures to a whole new level of vulgarity. Pushing the PG-13 envelope, the picture is geared toward older teens and parents rather than kids who are peers of the players. Family outings are strongly discouraged.
Screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who penned “Bad Santa,” stick close to the prototype in terms of plot, following the ramshackle team from the dregs of the league to the championships.
Thornton’s character, Coach Morris Buttermaker, portrayed by Walter Matthau in the old version, is now an exterminator instead of a pool cleaner. The movie opens with a sequence in which Buttermaker resolves a basement rat infestation problem by leading the rodents upstairs into the kitchen, where he offers his customer an expletive-laced analysis of the issue.
And that’s one of the film’s cleaner scenes.
Staying true to the original, the picture depicts the team leader as a drinker, smoker and womanizer, someone whose vices are present throughout the story. The former professional player is bribed into coaching a crew of unspectacular athletes by a multitasking single mom, Liz (Marcia Gay Harden). His dugout rival is Roy Bullock (Greg Kinnear) a trophy- obsessed sports guru whose Yankees are positioned to win the pennant.
Although Buttermaker is easily distracted by shapely softball players and Hooters waitresses, he assures Liz – in full vulgar mode – that he’ll help the children win games.
The coach’s charges are kids who didn’t make the cut for other teams. Some of the characters are modeled after misfit heroes from the original movie – the overweight catcher, the shy outfielder, the diminutive troublemaker – while others are new to the roster – a laptop-toting South Asian player and a boy in a wheelchair. Although the younger members of the cast have different levels of acting experience, they manage to match the grown-ups in moxie.
Performance-wise, the weakest links are the real-life athletes portraying the team’s star jocks, a female pitcher (a role created by Tatum O’Neal) and a delinquent-turned-prodigy. The casting choices make for impressive sports stunts but also some uneven comedy.
Sponsored by the Bo Peep Gentleman’s Club and cheered on by strippers, the team begins improving its stats as Buttermaker teaches the children how to work collaboratively toward a common goal (and also how to mix a mean martini).
“Bad News Bears” pitches more than punch lines. The film has a moral, even if it doesn’t explore the deepest themes. Delivering laughs, action and a little inspiration, it’s a cheerful curveball of a summer remake.
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