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Take Two #4: The Bad News Bears (1976) and Bad News Bears (2005)

Ahh, baseball! The invigorating thrill of freshly cut grass, the sweet pop of leather and oak on a summer day!

The Bad News Bears

Ahh, baseball! The invigorating thrill of freshly cut grass, the sweet pop of leather and oak on a summer day! A lyrical little game, with a literary pace worthy of Updike, Angell, Malamud, Roth, Lardner, and Coover! A game of simple food, endless statistics, fathers and sons, and mustaches. America’s pastime.

Which is all to say: Satirizing American culture by satirizing baseball is almost too easy. There are moments during The Bad News Bears and its nearly shot-for-shot 2005 remake where the story seems like it’s telling itself, and not in the good way. The plot is as hackneyed an underdog tale as you’ll ever find, and really the only joke in either film is, “Look at this louse, listen to this profanity! Aren’t they so incongruous with this ostensibly wholesome sport!” From the moment that washed up ex-pro Morris Buttermaker parks his puke-green convertible and pours beer onto the gravel parking lot in the films’ opening scenes, we know exactly where the movies are going and how they’ll get there.

In 1976, Buttermaker was Walter Matthau—over the hill, perpetually stubbled, and bleary-eyed at all hours. In 2005, he was Billy Bob Thornton, wearing a stupidly slick handlebar-soul patch combination and a series of improbably crisp polo shirts along with his lecherous fake smile. And that’s essentially the difference between the two films. The original, directed by Michael Ritchie, has a slack charm in its editing and construction that fits the story and characters. But somehow Richard Linklater—the director, fer chrissake, of a film called Slacker—never gels with this story. His version, as expected, is beautifully constructed, full of languid long shots and rhythmic editing. But for a director who routinely elicits career-best performances from his actors, Linklater’s cast (with the exception of Greg Kinnear, who’s always best when playing an asshole) all seem afloat and mismatched to the material. And while the script bubbles with the obligatory salty language, the set design and music are altogether too clean and polished to fit a movie about lovable slobs.

Wait, so the original is better because it’s more crappily made? Not exactly. It’s better because the filmmakers more effectively match the tone to the material, and the remake is so disappointing because Linklater would appear to be the perfect man for the job. If you had your choice of directors for a dialogue-heavy comedy that takes place almost entirely outdoors, one that revolves around a consciously hammy performance and requires an able ensemble cast behind him, wouldn’t you want the guy who made Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Waking Life, and Before Sunrise? I suppose so, but you’d also probably want to allow him to channel the warm personality and affection for his characters that mark all those films, and the script for Bad News Bears is so rote and constricted, there’s no room for either.

The new script, by Bad Santa team Glen Ficarra and John Requa, draws so heavily on the arc and even the individual lines of Bill Lancaster’s original that I honestly have no idea why it took two people to touch it up, or why anybody bothered remaking it to begin with. The biggest difference between Matthau’s Buttermaker and Thornton’s is the latter’s pronounced womanizing behavior and attending sexual language. This begets one of the film’s few off-kilter lines (“Baseball. Once you love it, it doesn’t always love you back. It’s like dating a German chick”), which is funny precisely because it doesn’t beg you to laugh like so many others around it. The rest of the one-liners are predictable insult comedy and sexual silliness, like when Thornton warns his team to steer clear of genital crabs: “You don’t want to spend your Sunday afternoon picking through your pumpkin patch.” At one point the filmmakers all but give up and stage a depressing montage of Thornton pelting the kids with wild pitches while holding his signature drink: a nonalcoholic beer can filled with Jim Beam.

(Matthau, bless his soul, is the more convincing boozehound and thus the funnier character. In 1976, Buttermaker just adds Jim Beam directly to his beer, and even has what John le Carré described as “the drunkard’s habit of ducking his mouth towards the rim of the glass…as if his hand might fail him and the drink escape.” This guy doesn’t booze to get laid, he just drinks to get soused.)

The plot of the original isn’t terribly innovative, but, much like Lancaster’s later script for John Carpenter’s The Thing, it has a sly satiric bitterness that certainly explains why so many male viewers remember it fondly from their childhoods. First of all, there’s the surprisingly strong thrill of hearing middle schoolers say obscenities that don’t get recycled in 2005 for obvious reasons. But additionally, the first movie better captures the sheer pointlessness and anarchy (I say that with affection) of little league. When Ritchie stages a series of shots displaying the different teams’ corporate sponsors on the their jerseys, it’s clever enough that we laugh both at the Bears’ indignity (their sponsor is “Chico’s Bail Bonds”) and at the larger irony that Americans have allowed our “national pastime” to become yet another showcase for corporate ownership; the only thing sadder than a bail bond sponsor is the fact that we consider it somehow cooler or more legit to be sponsored by Pizza Hut. (Ritchie’s movie also came out in the early summer of 1976, right as Bicentennial fever was cresting, which makes his jibes sting a little more than they might otherwise.)

Linklater has never been a satirist; his attitude toward his characters has always been refreshingly respectful. Marcia Gay Harden’s clownish super-mom character, a goofball to match any in Slacker, feels totally unbelievable here. So while his distinctly Texan pacing and sympathy for underdogs might seem like a perfect fit for Bad News Bears, he doesn’t really bother to update the story’s mild ribbing of parent-child expectations and community sports. Linklater’s Bears are sponsored by “Bo-Peep’s Gentleman’s Club,” a joke too obvious to even groan at, and one that carries no greater meaning at all. His is an odd failure: an overly respectful remake of a movie that existed mainly to spit in the culture’s eye.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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