by Marc Savlov & r & The Bad News Bears & r & Kids and profanity will always be funny together, and, like mom and apple pie and steroids, they're as American as the World Series. Michael Ritchie's 1976 film, The Bad News Bears, about the travails of a band of epithet-prone misfit Little Leaguers and the boozehound coach (Walter Matthau) who teaches them to play ball the hard way, caught the invective and ran with it all the way home, scoring a massive box-office shutout and inadvertently becoming one of the first punk-rock kids' films of the modern era. Think about it: pint-sized outsiders pulling a screw-the-rules fast one on the Establishment with teenage lust n' snot to spare.
Richard Linklater's new remake cleaves to the bone most of the way home, but is playing against far longer odds than Ritchie's film ever did. What was once shocking -- kids say the damnedest things, the li'l bastards! -- is now, however, de rigueur, and an easy out. And while Linklater's version has its own unique pacing, mounting up more like a series of innings than a series of acts -- even if you think you know how it ends, that bottom-of-the-ninth screwball still beans you silly -- it lacks the fastball-to-the-noggin punch of the original. There's not a lot that can be done about that now that the Sex Pistols are considered classic rock and John Waters is classic camp.
Screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa of Bad Santa (who are credited alongside the original, now-deceased BNB scribe, Bill Lancaster) do their best to keep things edgy within the PG-13 framework, and they succeed more than they fail, but ultimately this outing fares better as a portrait of Billy Bob Thornton's wayward coach Morris Buttermaker and his pre-cirrhosis reconciliation with fastballing daughter Amanda Whurlitzer (Sammi Kane Kraft, deftly treading the razor's edge between tomboy and proto-babe) than as a diamond-shaped comedy of errors. So many kids' films bearing the raucous Bad News Bears stamp have come and gone since 1976 they've become a genre unto themselves, and an oversaturated one at that. That Linklater manages to make his remake as affecting as it is -- and there are moments of pure goofball zaniness scattered throughout -- is only surprising to those who haven't been following his sublimely wild-carding career, ranging as it does from Slacker to The Newton Boys to Waking Life.
That said, The Bad News Bears is Thornton's game all the way. The PG-13 precludes the "F" word, thereby likely knocking out some of Ficarra and Requa's choicer ripostes & agrave; la Bad Santa, but the former Davy Crockett still manages to look pleasantly distilled to the essence of curdled masculinity and sloe gin-soaked self-loathing. With a chummy leer, no less, and a perpetual bevy of Hooters girls trailing behind him like the choking fumes of his ever-present cigarillos, Thornton's Buttermaker, a former Major Leaguer for somewhat less than one inning, is the bad dad who yearns to make good, or, at least, better. There's a palpable, winning ease in the scenes between him and Kraft, and though it's unlikely you'll buy the Bears' ultimate sandlot redemption -- we've seen it too many times before -- it's a gas to see this seventh-inning stretcher-case downshift into hero mode, finally.