A film review by Craig J. Koban
BAD NEWS BEARS
BAD NEWS BEARS
2005, PG-13, 111 mins.
Morris Buttermaker: Billy Bob Thornton / Liz Whitewood:
Marcia Gay Harden / Bullock:
Greg Kinnear / Amanda Whurlitzer: Sammi Kane Kraft / Kelly Leak: Jeffrey Davies
Tanner: Timmy Deters / Joey Bullock: Carter Jenkins /
Engelberg: Brandon Craggs
Oh boy…yet another remake.
Okay, if I must reiterate again, I approach remakes with a certain particular mindset because, let’s face it, they are such a dime a dozen variety now and so rigidly commonplace that they have almost become a genre in upon themselves. Furthermore, since I approach and critique all films with a relative stamp of approval or disapproval based on what they are trying to be, I believe that remakes should be held to the similar standard. In essence, I applaud remakes if they maintain a modest and satisfactory level of faithfulness to the source material while providing me with something altogether fresh and invigorating. In other words, I like remakes to feel both simultaneously familiar and new. After all, if a remake is just a bland carbon copy of the original, then what’s the point then…right?
Enter BAD NEWS BEARS, which in itself is a thoroughly devoted retelling of the classic 1976 film of the same name (actually, that one was called THE BAD NEWS BEARS, but I digress). You may or may not remember that film which starred Walter Matthau as a boozing nobody who takes on a team of little league misfits with all levels of shenanigans taking place. That film was so popular that it inspired two inferior sequels of its own. Now comes Richard Linklater’s re-imagining of the cheerfully vulgar 70’s sports picture. Actually, “re-imagining” is kind of misleading, as is the term remake when trying to aptly describe this film – it’s more of a carbon copy, which further begs the question…why bother?
Movies, to the average filmgoer, are not a cheap form of entertainment. Now, I am clearly not going to engage in an intellectually critique of a film based on a purely fiduciary standpoint, but c'mon...why spend your hard earned money on this BAD NEWS BEARS when the ’76 version will more than suffice as a cheap DVD rental some night? It is not so much that Linklater’s new film version is dreadful by any definition. It has some appeal, like a truly inspired performance by Billy Bob Thornton in Matthau’s role, which seems to be the living embodiment of channeling apathy, drunken droopiness, and overall rage and angst better than anyone.
Nope, the problem with Linklater’s work here is that it is ultimately lethargic and pointless. For all of its willingness to be a cynical, potty-mouth, politically incorrect kiddie sports picture that was indicative of the original, Linklater’s film does nothing to improve upon the ’76 film in any meaningful way. BAD NEWS BEARS is like one of those inexperienced and up-and-coming bands that covers the hits by classic groups of the past. Yeah, they sound familiar and are easy on the ears, but wouldn’t you just rather hear the original versions done by the group that gave the songs the light of day in the first place?
Linklater, at least in my eyes, is a truly gifted, maverick talent that seems to have been wandering around aimlessly as of late, adrift in mediocre and pedestrian films that taint his otherwise flavorful resume. He made DAZED AND CONFUSED back in 1993, an AMERICAN GRAFFITI for the 70’s if there ever was one, and also made BEFORE SUNRISE and its recent sequel, BEFORE SUNSET, two small character driven masterpieces. Unfortunately, he has become too easily bogged down it lacklustre entertainments, like the dolefully overrated Jack Black ego-trip feature SCHOOL OF ROCK and the maddening exercise of pretentious, existentialist rambling about nothingness that was WAKING LIFE. Now comes BAD NEWS BEARS and if Linklater continues to invest his proven talent and energies into witless and seemingly frivolous films like this one, then he might as well stop while he’s ahead.
Really…I have to ask again...why? Why make a make such an insidiously faithful remake to a film that was fairly good and entertaining already? For that matter, why go to the trouble of getting the original screenwriter of the 1976 film version to helm the script of the new version? Did he not feel he got it right the first time? Was there any need in his mind, one begins to think, that he needed to contemporize this story in any way?
Okay, the old film was excitedly subversive, darkly funny, and blue to its core, but why rekindle a film with a respectable amount of edge already and try to pass off another film treatment of it? Linklater’s film so rarely diverges from the source material that I found myself yawning most of the way through it and checking my watch feverishly. Sure, this new version has some updated riffs and a bit of new content, but taken as a whole the film just sort of falls flat. Yes, it is not the shot-for shot remake that was the bastardized Gus Van Sant version of PSYCHO, but BAD NEWS BEARS is not too far off. It reuses the same formula, the same characters, the same plot and dynamics between all of the various characters…and so on and so on. Again...why?
Well, there is only really one reason to honestly see this film and that is for Thornton’s monosyllabic and grizzled performance as the kids’ coach. Thornton is just so dang good at playing...well...Billy Bob Thornton characters. You know, the ones that are wonderfully crass, say whatever they want to at a moment’s notice without a care in the world, and are hound dogs that always look like they are in a state of perpetual drunkenness that borders on self-loathing and overt lethargy.
He played this type of character rather effectively in BAD SANTA and he does the same, more of less, in BAD NEWS BEARS. He is not quite as scatologically and horribly offensive as he was in that 2003 film, but in BEARS Thornton does display a penchant for his keen lack of sensitivity and political correctness. After one disastrous inning, he screams at his players, “You guys look like Helen Keller at a pińata party!” During one later and more intense standoff with his players, Thornton, in a true zealot rage, lashes out, “This ain't no democracy, it's a dictatorship, and I'm Hitler!” Definitely not a great role model if I ever bore witness to one.
One the level of one performance, BAD NEWS BEARS is a standout work. As for the rest…I was less then enthralled. The film charters Buttermaker (Thornton) who was once an ex-minor leaguer that had his 15 minutes of fame in the majors (actually, less than an inning, to be sure). Well, Buttermaker has fallen on increasingly bad and rough times and, because he is trying to secure more money to facilitate his boozing ways, he agrees to take on coaching a little league team. He does it only because a money is involved). If Buttermaker is a raging troglodyte of a human being, then his cast of players are no more refined. They too are a rough, unsophisticated, and foul-mouthed group of little hellions. They occupy most of the stereotypical stock characters that one would find in most underdog sports pictures, albeit with far less refined edges. We have that loud mouth fat kid that loves to eat, a black kid that (rather ironically and amusingly, worships Mark McGwire) a female tomboy pitcher, an older kid that may or may not have done time at Juvenile Hall, and a boy that is in a wheelchair.
All in all, this team – The Bears – suck big time. Like the original, after a series of grueling and demoralizing losses, the team begins to turn their season around and end up in a championship match playing the unbeatable Yankees, coached by the irrepressibly smug and obnoxiously narcissistic Roy Bullock, played effectively by Greg Kinnear. He is actually more of a offensive and vile persona than Buttermaker in the sense that he wears a tainted mask of being all about the love of the game when he actually is a militaristic task master who is not above shoving one of his own players – in one case, his son – down to the ground in the middle of a game with all spectators watching. At least Buttermaker is realistic in his outlook on baseball with the kids (“The game is not gonna love ya back. It’s kind of like dating a German Chick”). Needless to say, Buttermaker turns the team around, takes them to the big game, and if you connect the dots, cross all of the t’s and dot the i’s, and you’ll see exactly where this film is headed, even if you’ve never seen the original.
Again, this film’s only saving grace is Thornton, who occupies most of its central and big laughs. For everything he says that garners a huge chuckle, there is about five other moments in the film that seem painfully forced and try too hard to make us laugh. Buttermaker is the least favourable choice to coach a little league team and would most likely send parents into panic attacks of worry and regret if they stood by to see his antics. As far as I know, he is the only little league coach to take his kids to a celebratory supper at Hooter’s in order to drink, eat, and sing along to the lyrics of "Cocaine". He also has utilized a somewhat unfavorable sponsor for his team (in this case, a strip club) and has their logo plastered on the kids’ jerseys.
He also takes great pains to expound on the nobility of lying to one’s parents, not to mention that he enjoys taking all of them to work at his day job as an exterminator. When two kids start spraying each other with insecticide after a dispute, he dryly tells them, “Hey, knock it off, this stuff’s expensive.” Even when the film goes down a fairly pedestrian path, there is always the wise talking, irreverent curse machine that is Buttermaker that always takes great pride in being an unpleasant an odious simpleton and goofball. But hey, maybe he does care for the kids in the long run. Besides, he once tells them all, “If you get hurt, they can sue my ass so hard, they'll start garnishing my turds.”
I am at a bit of a loss as to where to go with this review. If you’ve seen THE BAD NEWS BEARS then there is no real reason whatsoever to see Richard Linklater’s BAD NEWS BEARS, a film that basks in a glow of irrelevancy like it was some sort of virtuous characteristic. I guess that on it’s basic levels it’s a good comedy with some genuine laughs, some of them being of the more shocking variety (this film is very appropriately rated PG-13, as is definitely not something to be taking a very young child to see). Billy Bob Thornton makes for an efficient purveyor of sleaze and self-deplorable behaviour and all of his scenes sparkle with an entertaining level of raunchy tastelessness.
Yet, beyond Thornton, there is nothing more to recommend this film on. In the annals of great remakes, this one is a paint-by numbers variety and by the time the film faded to black and the credits rolled by I felt a bit cheated and let down. Here is a filmmaker that has made some of my favorite films of the last 15 years and now he seems fulfilled by (or reduced to…take your pick) slumming around in the second-rate, run of the mill, and superfluous waters that is BAD NEWS BEARS. Why pay for the milk if you can get the cow for free? Metaphors aside, rent the original, watch it in the comfy confines of your home, and skip this remake that was bad news from the beginning.