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AT THE MOVIES: Everything Old Is New Again: The Bad News Bears (**)

This summer is taking many of us back to our childhoods. But for me, no film can match The Bad News Bears. My best friend and I saw and loved the original – even more, we found in it characters who spoke like we spoke and hailed from worlds we knew so well. It is a film that was shocking then but would be impossible to revive as is. In fact, rewatching it on cable recently reminded me how much our collective view of childhood has changed and how different kids’ movies are today.

This was before the explosion of child molesters, abductors and murderers, before the tabloid scandal age in which no one can be trusted, least of all a guy like Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) who drinks beer and swears like a sailor. But oh, those were the days.

In order to remake The Bad News Bears, director Richard Linklater had to update it and in so doing lost some of the point of it. In the end, the film’s message is sturdy enough to withstand several decades and different interpretations: it isn’t whether you win or lose but how you play the game that counts. In both films, when that moment hits, it resonates spectacularly.

The story follows a gaggle of misfits not good enough to play in Little League games. One frustrated Type-A mom (Marcia Gay Harden) decides that her little boy won’t be left out and hires Buttermaker (this time played by Billy Bob Thornton) to coach him and others interested in playing. At first, Buttermaker goes through the motions – getting drunk and making the boys do his job for him (in the original he cleans pools, in the update he kills rats). After one particularly humiliating loss, Buttermaker decides he might as well make the best of it. He finds his ex-stepdaughter Amanda (Tatum O’Neal’s character played now by Sammi Kraft) whom he once taught to play ball and convinces her to pitch for the Bears.

Eventually, the Bears get good enough to inch toward the championship, due to Amanda and another player, Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley’s part goes to Jeff Davies) and a few other players. The better they get the more competitive Buttermaker becomes until he reaches monster-like proportions, losing all sense of what the game is supposed to be about.

While it sounds like a sweet little tale of an underdog team that makes good, The Bad News Bears is filled with profanity and dares to show kids how most of them are. But in this version, because of the filmmaker’s insistence on being politically correct, many of the original’s hard edged insults have been replaced with mostly sex and male anatomy jokes. And, of course, the requisite scatological humor is ever-present.

Richard Linklater is a brilliant filmmaker when given work that is in harmony with his apparent sweet nature. School of Rock was the perfect kid movie for him. The Bad News Bears needed, perhaps, a more ruthless eye, someone who isn’t going to feel compassion for all of the characters all of the time.

One of the film’s biggest problems is the choice of Greg Kinnear as Roy Bullock, replacing Vic Morrow as Coach Roy Turner. Morrow is just plain mean and you hate him. What he does to his son and the ensuing action is among the best parts of the 1976 film. In the remake, it’s still there but it isn’t nearly as powerful.

As Buttermaker, Thornton walks in already too cool for the part, even though, as his character points out, he’s just a drunk who kills rats for a living and lives in a trailer park in Sun Valley. He is immediately a nicer guy than Matthau ever could have been. Matthau’s “Boilermaker” was a mess you could see coming from a mile away – a slumped over man with a beer gut and a permanent sneer, someone for whom hope has long since fled. He has to come so far from grumpy to sweet that you can’t help but be moved.More than anything, though, this updated Bad News Bears is a reminder of what a treasure we have in the original. It was a time and place perfectly captured, with characters who aren’t easily replaced. In this case, it wasn’t really necessary to make another.

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