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Friday, Sept. 23, 2005
Baseball movie strikes out
Back in 1993, when the 1970s and pot-smoking were just coming back into fashion, director Richard Linklater won a cult following for his high-school flick "Dazed & Confused." Although set in 1976 and featuring plenty of pot, "Dazed" was more notable for its structure -- an almost real-time portrait of one night in the lives of a bunch of Texas teens, who pretty much drive around a lot while getting nowhere. It also bore a sense of authenticity: These were teens who lived, breathed, swore, hung out, scored and partied very much like real kids, not the sort of broad caricatures that Hollywood usually offered, whether in "Porky's" or "Revenge of the Nerds."
Linklater's career has had many twists and turns -- the art-house romanticism of "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," the failed stab at the mainstream with "The Newton Boys," the surreal animated feature "Waking Life," the gritty DV aesthetic of "Tape" -- but ever since he scored a bona fide hit with last year's "School of Rock," he's officially become hot property.
His latest, a remake of the foul-mouthed 1976 comedy "The Bad News Bears," is undoubtedly his weakest film, bar none. That doesn't necessarily bother me, because it's likely he'll take whatever revenue it generates and go do another, more interesting film with it. Still, it's easy to see some industry suits looking at "School of Rock," deciding that what Linklater does is silly, slightly "edgy" teen flicks, and putting him on an endless drip feed to make more.
From Linklater's perspective, it's easy to see what attracted him to the project -- the nostalgia factor, a chance to redo the sort of film he enjoyed as a kid, before he discovered the likes of Truffaut or Rohmer.
The original "Bad News Bears" was a clear product of the '70s, that era of dissoluteness and doubt. Despite its broad, often stoopid, comedy, the film demolished the usual heroic sports-movie cliches by portraying a baseball team coached by a drunk, with a girl for its pitcher, and a bunch of brats with baseball skills that made Charlie Brown look like Roger Clemens.
Nowadays, however, movies about kids with "attitude," or the bunch of misfits who pull together to beat their stronger, straighter opponents are a dime a dozen. (See "Dodgeball," et al.) So the question was, what could Linklater bring to a new version of "Bears?"
Answer: not much. His biggest coup was casting Billy Bob Thornton in the Walter Matthau role -- a former pro-ballplayer turned boozer who reluctantly grows to love the team of losers he coaches. When we first meet Thornton as Coach Buttermaker, he's tanked, and ogling a girls' Little League game. "I never thought I'd hear myself say this," he slurs, "but look at the ass on that second baseman."
The team of rejects he's been roped into coaching include a dweeby Indian kid, a little African-American boy whose hero is Mark McGuire (that's the joke), a short kid who never stops fighting, a kid in a wheelchair with a permanent victimization chip on his shoulder, and a fat kid on the Atkins diet, gobbling mouthfuls of bacon. All of them swear like troopers, which is probably authentic, but may or may not be funny depending on your proximity to age 12.
There are sub-plots involving Coach Buttermaker recruiting his estranged daughter to pitch, a nasty rival coach played by Greg Kinnear in ridiculously tight shorts, and the idea that kids are less interested in winning than they are in not being bullied by adults (a theme that goes back to Linklater's "Dazed & Confused," where quarterback Floyd refuses to sign a pledge that he will remain drug-free).
It's hard to avoid a sense of deja vu here, however, and I'm not talking about the remake factor. Thornton's performance is essentially a reprise of the one he delivered in "Bad Santa": a lying, fornicating, cussing, drunk good-for-nothing, who nevertheless finds it in his heart to help a young kid in need. As in that film, the potty-mouth humor gets old fast, one-note jokes are played over-and-over (the strippers who cheer on the Bears), and the viewer is hard put to find any reason to stay through the end. Unless, of course, you're 13, and revel in obnoxiousness. In that case, enjoy.