Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Bad News Bears

When I sat down recently to watch The Bad News Bears for the first time, I thought I knew what I was in for.  The premise is pretty familiar by now.  A somewhat unwilling coach, Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), is pegged to manage a little league team.  He takes the job from a city council member because he needs money and because baseball is all he's ever been good at.  Buttermaker is a washed up minor league pitcher that now spends his time drinking beer and bourbon...sometimes in the same beer can.  The team is wretched beyond belief.  Not only do they have the smallest and weakest kids in the league, but they also have the only Mexican or black kids, too.  Gasp.  I would like to point out that it's nice to see ethnic kids not being stereotyped as awesome athletes, but the movie's not trying to be progressive.  Not surprisingly, the team (The Bears) lose their first few games horribly.  The team can't  do anything right and they call Buttermaker out for not caring.  Fair enough.

That gets him to care a little and he recruits a ringer, the daughter of an ex-girlfriend.  "Aww, she's a girl!"  Yes, and she's the team's best player.  Amanda (Tatum O'Neal) is a great pitcher, and the team becomes competitive quickly.  But, like all misfit teams, they need one more wild card to win.  Enter Kelly (Jackie Earle Haley), the local bad boy that also just happens to be the most gifted natural player around.  He's too naughty to play for any of the rich kids' teams, so he just hangs out and makes fun of them until Amanda convinces him to join The Bears.  From there, the team gets all the way to the championship, but they soon ask themselves the question: do they want to have fun, or do they want to win?

At the time, this movie was most notable for its innovative use of child profanity.  In one of the more memorable quotes, the team loudmouth characterizes his teammates as "a bunch of Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eating moron."  While that would be kind of offensive today, I imagine that it was more shocking 30+ years ago.  Even those that are turned off by the racist terms and the swearing should be able to see that they were used for comedic purposes.  I don't know if that makes it better, but at least it makes them intentionally funny.

The performances are alright, I guess, for a movie filled with child actors.  Most of the cast does only one thing at a time, so they aren't too bad.  I guess director Michael Ritchie knew enough about children to keep them doing what they are good at.  "You're nerdy?  Let's get you some glasses and you can act nervous.  You're a smart ass?  Let's get you some dialogue, etc., etc."  Unsurprisingly, Tatum O'Neal (who won her Oscar three years before) is very good; it is fun watching her trying to out-tough or out-indifferent Matthau, and she does a good job in her romantic scenes with Haley.  Jackie Earle Haley was a bit of surprise for me; I thought he was really good here, but his career didn't really take off for another thirty years.  Walter Matthau, of course, is the best part of this movie.  He's always entertaining, but especially so when he's playing a prickly character.  Here, he gets to play an alcoholic for laughs and still ends up on moral high ground.

There are a lot of parts in this movie that wouldn't be included nowadays.  I haven't seen the remake, but I'm pretty sure the scene where Buttermakerdrives a car full of kids around town (without seat belts) while obviously hammered isn't included.  The swearing isn't too bad really (and it reminds me of elementary school), but it's pretty rare to see a family movie have kids swearing, even for laughs.  Another thing that is commonplace in real life and present in this film, but is rare in movies: adults obviously lying to children and getting away with it.  That's probably not a bad thing, but I'm just saying...More importantly, though, this movie is not overly saccharine, something that just doesn't happen in modern movies for kids.

The premise of this film is pretty commonplace by now, but it was pretty fresh in 1976.  What I liked about this movie, more than any of its successors and sequels, is its honesty.  You can predict how most sports movies end within the first ten minutes you watch them.  This story doesn't just follow the team's narrative, but the player's emotional arcs as well.  This isn't a particularly deep movie, but it has a message and it has fun getting it across.

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