In a scene targeting 1976’s The Bad News Bears, David Wain and Michael Showalter’s hilariously deconstructionist Wet Hot American Summer lays bare the kiddie sports genre’s predictably soggy template: A motley crew of misfits without a chance in the world undergo a kooky training period, make it to the finals, and then win the big game against anonymous villains on “some weird trick play that we made up.” A satirical triple, the segment misses clearing the comedic fences only because it implicitly references Michael Ritchie’s foul-mouthed, Walter Matthau-headlined classic, a gem that stands apart from its mundane contemporaries on the strength of its subversion of slushy, well-worn conventions. Whereas such films habitually have kids learn the value of sportsmanship over winning, only to then undermine this lesson by having them prevail in the end, The Bad News Bears—through a mixture of out-and-out vulgarity and a caustic finale in which triumph is achieved from losing—exuded a genuine disdain for American-bred success-at-all-costs competitiveness. The ragamuffin Bears are victorious not because they embrace the noble principles of togetherness and teamwork (though they nonetheless do so, in spite of themselves) but because they realize that having fun by behaving like unruly, bratty children is more important than a worthless plastic trophy or the fleeting elation derived from being labeled a champion.
Richard Linklater’s updated Bad News Bears remains largely faithful to this spirit of crude rebelliousness, even as it tempers, in ways both big and peewee, its source material’s gleefully sloshed, loutish cynicism. Narratively identical to Ritchie’s original, Linklater’s version involves drunken coach-for-hire Morris Buttermaker (Billy Bob Thornton) and the rag-tag bunch of athletically challenged freaks he’s made responsible for shaping into a respectable baseball squad. If Matthau’s slothful, Schlitz-chugging coach was like a scary grandpa who could barely muster the energy required to speak, Thornton’s stripper-dating former ballplayer (and current vermin exterminator) Buttermaker is akin to a skeevy uncle who thinks nothing’s funnier than corrupting young, impressionable minds with talk of sex and substance abuse.
Unfortunately, the film regularly attempts to soften Buttermaker’s surly edges by giving him earnest speeches and a purely sentimental streak regarding star pitcher (and daughter of his ex-girlfriend) Amanda (Sammi Kraft, more butch than Tatum O’Neal). Worse, his devolvement into third-act sappiness is indicative of much of this polished remake, which not only substitutes its predecessor’s organic, lazy slovenliness with a well-pressed professional luster, but also puritanically cuts down on shots of Buttermaker drinking, diminishes rival coach Bullock’s (Greg Kinnear) on-field child abuse, eliminates brawling shortstop Tanner’s (Timmy Deters) infamous xenophobic catchphrase—in this new Bad News Bears, only bad guys use racial epithets—and has the team celebrate their “moral victory” by spraying non-alcoholic beer.
Ironic, then, that the film is nonetheless appreciably funnier and more profane than its ‘70s-era ancestor. Written by Bad Santa scribes Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, Bad News Bears establishes that, though the f-bomb may be verboten in PG-13 films, the words “shit” and “ass” are fair game, and Linklater and company take advantage of this ratings-board paradigm by crafting what may be the most expletive-laden kids film ever. From Buttermaker referring to his team as “the bronze medalists for the Special Olympics” and encouraging them after a bad loss with “You guys look like the last shit I took,” to Tanner’s climactic repudiation of the winning-is-everything mentality, “See ya next year, bitches!,” there’s an uninhibited coarseness to the proceedings that helps offset its extra layer of corniness. And by and large, moments of schmaltz are thankfully juxtaposed with instances of shameless inappropriateness, such as an inspirational training montage sullied by the image of Tanner teaching Prem (Aman Johal) how to properly wield his middle finger, or following up the image of wheelchair-bound Hooper (Troy Gentile) miraculously catching a fly ball with Marcia Gay Harden’s sneaky lawyer excitedly yelping, “The little crippled boy did it!”
As he did with School of Rock‘s flamboyant gay costume designer, Linklater’s depiction of the Indian Prem as a brainy nerd is a tad too stereotypical for a film that prides itself on being defiantly irregular. Nonetheless, the point here is acid-tongued nastiness of the equal-opportunity variety, and Thornton and his prepubescent castmates prove themselves to be major league vitriol-spitters whether discussing Prem’s homeland of “Ricky-ticky-tacky, or wherever” or overweight catcher Engelberg’s (Brandon Craggs) “nice tits.” With a Spanish-speaking player calling bad-boy superstar Kelly Leak (Jeff Davies) “Chupacabra” and snot-nosed wimp Lupus (Tyler Patrick Jones) arbitrarily blurting out “Sometimes bird poop tastes like candy,” the film exudes the brashness of a salty stand-up comedian who’s hit his stride riffing with offensive, non sequitur abandon. That such an atmosphere feels somewhat scattershot and—when coupled with the film’s less-scathing misanthropy—schizophrenic ultimately matters very little thanks to the consistently high batting average of Ficarra and Requa’s one-liners. In the film’s most uproarious moment, Buttermaker leads his team and some buxom Hooters waitresses through a joyous sing-along of Eric Clapton’s druggie love song “Cocaine.” And when it hits its smutty stride, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright to relish this modern Bad News Bears’ brand of bad behavior.