Linklater's `Bad News Bears': no home runs

Billy Bob Thornton scores at times with out-of-left-field lines

MovieReview

July 22, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

God or the devil loves Billy Bob Thornton - probably both. No one tops him at portraying the nagging morality and decency of an amoral, indecent man. The most grievous flaw in Richard Linklater's remake of Michael Ritchie's 1976 misfit juvenile baseball comedy The Bad News Bears is that it over-relies on Thornton's willingness to play an irredeemable degenerate.

Walter Matthau could be a curmudgeon on the scale of W.C. Fields. But when he did the Ritchie movie, there was still some suspense to seeing how low Matthau would go in portraying an embittered ex-minor leaguer who coaches a misfit kids-league baseball team for a paycheck.

Matthau made a classic bit out of falling down dead drunk in front of a bunch of kids, but with Thornton as the coach, that's the least you can expect. And Thornton doesn't bring any new energy or invention to his ne'er-do-well persona. So this version doesn't start to turn around until the coach decides to whip his team of racial and social outcasts and under-achievers into presentable shape.

That's when Thornton's wayward skill with juicy lines - and his knack for juxtaposing a good heart with a rampaging id - salvage pieces of the movie. He says that baseball is a game that you can love even when it doesn't love you: "It's kind of like dating a German chick," he explains to the befuddled youngsters.

Later, the Bears achieve their first non-loss - a tie. He says he knows it can be compared to kissing your sister, but this tie should be compared to kissing "a very hot stepsister." Whenever your attention sags, there's Billy Bob, dispensing advice all the more sage for its unmistakable whiff of the gutter.

When Thornton recruits the hard-pitching daughter of an ex-lover as one of his two ringers (the other is a premature biker boy who can do it all), Linklater pulls off the inevitable "pitch like a girl" gag. But too much of the time he directs like an infant. How could the savvy and sometimes inspired moviemaker behind Before Sunset and Before Sunrise and Waking Life let this distant replay of the original run 10 minutes longer?

He milks the most obvious laughs about cussing and gluttony, as if targeting dirty-minded 8-year-olds. Unlike Ritchie, he doesn't catch anything fresh or snappy in the young performers. Greg Kinnear carries a few scenes as an over-zealous coach who sees himself as a rock-jawed competitor, and Marcia Gay Harden offers a pointed caricature of an over-achieving adult. But they seem to be in a different, better movie.

The derisive attitude of the first movie toward Americans' lust for success and the cool competitive strain in supposedly cozy suburbia feels old hat now, possibly because so many other films have ripped off Ritchie's Bad News Bears (including the recent Will Ferrell soccer film, Kicking and Screaming).

Linklater and the new screenwriters, Bad Santa's Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who follow the late Bill Lancaster's plot and much of his dialogue), lather on explicit sex talk, bolder swearing and scatology. But they handle the ethnic and racial comedy more gingerly - and they can't overcome the general aura of pointlessness.

In a better movie, you might get that old sagging feeling when you realize that the movie aims to head down that well-traveled road of a wastrel athlete winning back his fighting spirit, going overboard for a scene or two, then regaining the humanity that he learned as a longtime loser. In this movie, you feel relieved that the movie is going somewhere, even if it's close-up and impersonal.

The Bad News Bears

Starring Billy Bob Thornton

Directed by Richard Linklater

Released by Paramount Pictures

Rated PG-13

Time 111 minutes

Sun Score ** (two stars)

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