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Two hits, no errors: Billy Bob Thornton, shown with young Jeffrey Tedmori, takes the Walter Matthau role of reprobate Little League coach and runs with it.
Two hits, no errors: Billy Bob Thornton, shown with young Jeffrey Tedmori, takes the Walter Matthau role of reprobate Little League coach and runs with it. (By Deana Newcomb -- Paramount Pictures)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 22, 2005

The best thing about the new version of "Bad News Bears" is that none of today's idiots decided they could fix it.

They were smart enough to realize the original wasn't broke.

So, with a few mild updates, it feels more like a tracing of the original 1976 film than a remake. The difference, of course, is that, while in the original the great Walter Matthau defined bitter old-guy squalor, torpor and pathology in one way, Billy Bob Thornton defines bitter old-guy squalor, torpor and pathology in another. So for connoisseurs of the reprobate lifestyle, its nuances and filigrees, its twisted little arroyos and backed-up sewers of broken dreams, one film is as good as the other.

Where Matthau was merely indifferent and beyond illusion, Thornton is actually seamy, with a kind of trailer-trash hostility undercutting his bile. There's a sexualized ugliness to his character, as he's a habitue of strip bars and isn't above a toss in the hay with the mother of a kid. Matthau was merely worthless, while Thornton, God bless his soul, rises to the actual level of sociopathic. I love it when that happens.

Presumably this was the contribution of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who wrote Thornton's "Bad Santa" and understand just how funny the Arkansan can be when infected with full-bore misanthropy, or, should I say, funny to those of us who aren't Boy Scout troop leaders, Amway sales people, televangelists or other team-oriented, can-do, up-with-people type personalities. (Those folks should probably stay way away; and I do mean way away.) The late Bill Lancaster (the great Burt's son) also gets a writing credit for writing the 1976 original.

In any case, most people are familiar with both the story and the gimmick. The Bears are a Little League team of castoffs and rejects, so lame they are the butt of the league's jokes and openly despised by all and sundry, including in some cases their own parents. Only one person can be found to coach them, the neighborhood loser Morris Buttermaker, who had brief major league experience many years ago but now may be seen lurking lazily about the edges of polite society, usually with a drink in hand. In the '76 version he was a pool cleaner, in this an exterminator, so Ficarra and Requa have added a few especially tasteless dead animal jokes.

Of course Morris agrees to coach (for a fee, of course; no noblesse oblige anywhere near him) and soon sees how hapless his charges are. He responds to this crisis by drinking even more. Of course another coach tees him off (Vic Morrow in the original, Greg Kinnear, an improvement, here), and he decides to turn the team into winners by bringing in two ringers, his own ex-stepdaughter (Tatum O'Neal, at the beginning of her first run of stardom, in the first; Sammi Kraft here) and a local hood (Jeffrey Davies) who happens to be a superb athlete, even if he'd prefer motocrossing the field as opposed to hitting dingers.

The gimmick was that Lancaster was the first screenwriter to desentimentalize children. They had for six decades been apotheosized by Hollywood, portrayed as sugary little angels who at worst were mischievous as in the "Our Gang" comedies. "The Bad Seed," a definite exception to the rule (and famous because of it), portrayed a kid as out and out bad. That was about it. Along comes Lancaster, who shows them as foul-mouthed little beasties, treacherous, combative, ruthless and capable of great ugliness to each other. It was so refreshing back in '76 to see kids curse and rant and behave in recognizable human patterns that connected in memory with the real childhood of most adults.

Nobody in this variation messes with that magic, particularly the gifted director Richard Linklater ("Dazed and Confused" his first big hit), who clearly knows his way around a kid. In fact whole sequences, as well as the names and personalities of the boys, are reiterated beat by beat. You think: That old stuff? Still funny? Come on!

But: That old stuff. Still funny.

Of course the two additions to the team are soon hogging the glory and even the lesser boys grow addicted to victory. Of course, the true journey in the film is the inner one, as the hopeless roue Morris is affected emotionally by his poorer athletes, their yearning for acceptance, their hunger for selfhood, and soon enough -- mirabile dictu ! -- he's become the champ of the underdogs and wants the lamer boys to win on their own, even risking the biggest game to see if it can happen.

I was somewhat annoyed by his redemption, redemption being a hack screenwriter's conceit a lot more common in movies than real life. And Good Morris, like Good Santa, is a lot less fun than Bad Morris was.

Oh, well. If the great Matthau has sadly gone onward, to that cocktail bar in the sky where the martinis are always cold, the olives ripe and firm and nobody has told him he can't smoke, his Menckenian-Fieldian spirit is still embodied by the thin-armed, tattooed, laconic sleazebo from Arkansas. The movie is fun, though not great, and Billy Bob rules.

Bad News Bears (111 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for extreme profanity and sexual innuendo.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company