Going to the theater this summer has been like stepping into a time machine where your fondest childhood memories are retooled by cynics and sadists. Bewitched, Herbie: Fully Loaded, last week's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and now Bad News Bears are meant to be gobbled like comfort food by wistful thirtysomethings weaned on the originals, but these dishes have been poisoned by their respective studios and filmmakers, and we're left gagging down the aisles. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Bad News Bears are especially distasteful, replacing their iconic leads (Gene Wilder and Walter Matthau, respectively) with ickier, surlier variations who merely distract and disappoint. Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka comes off as little more than a creep with daddy issues, and Billy Bob Thornton is such a bum and letch, he'd creep out Matthau's Morris Buttermaker, who would never be caught dead ogling the girls' softball team.
What seemed like such a good idea on paper -- pairing the writers and star of the merrily obscene Bad Santa with the director of the underdog-kiddie hit School of Rock for a remake of the 1976 film The Bad News Bears -- is instead the cinematic equivalent of a slack, lazy, and incompetent cover tune performed by tone-deaf amateurs. You will still recognize a little of what remains onscreen -- the screenplay is credited to Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, and original writer Bill Lancaster -- but the plastic surgeons have botched the job, rendering The Bad News Bears hideously deformed. Those who have any memory of or affection for Michael Ritchie's original will watch Richard Linklater's redo with eyes opened wide, appalled and amazed -- at least until their eyelids droop and close. Latecomers will wonder what the fuss was all about; why, after all, would anyone want to remake this crap?
Everything about this is wrong: the casting (Thornton's just playing a bad Santa, this time without the suit), the editing (apparently there wasn't any, given its stultifying two-hour length), the writing (which consists of little more than the copious use of the word "shit"), the cinematography (the movie looks as if it were made in 1976), and the direction (a few colleagues were taking bets after the movie about how often Linklater actually visited the set). Where Ritchie, maker of The Candidate and Downhill Racer, sneakily dealt with how parents take Little League more seriously than their kids do (epitomized by Vic Morrow as the father who nearly assaults his own son on the pitcher's mound), Linklater aims low and shoots lower. His version is crude for crude's sake, a movie that exists simply to giggle at itself for having the temerity to insert four-letter words in the mouths of four-foot-tall children.
The filmmakers forsake satire and worship instead at the altar of the dirty joke, which might work, if only the jokes were at all pointed, meaningful, or the slightest bit funny. Instead, they try to wring desperate, easy giggles out of the kids by having them say things like "I left more talent floating in the shitter this morning than all of you retards put together," an insult uttered by Tanner (Timmy Deters), which replaces the original's far more scathing and shocking line about how the kid hates playing on a team populated by "Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eatin' moron."
For all their attempts at being capital-S shocking, the filmmakers reveal instead how timid and indolent they really are. Ritchie wasn't afraid to show how angry these kids were -- angry at being ignored and used by their parents, angry at being laughed at by the other teams, angry at themselves for being so awful at a kid's game. Linklater, Ficarra, and Requa have no interest in what makes the kids tick (and so ticked off) and focus instead on the adults, including Greg Kinnear as the mean-spirited, overly competitive coach, who loathes Buttermaker and his meager team. They insert pointless diversions, including a relationship between Marcia Gay Harden (as the attorney who sues to get the Bears into the league) and Thornton that goes nowhere and means nothing. The kids have been reduced to little more than props -- some of whom, including Jeff Davies as a juvenile delinquent and Sammi Kraft as a 12-year-old pitching phenom, appear to be made of cardboard.
The movie gets off on the wrong foot, with Buttermaker (now an exterminator, not a pool-cleaner) climbing out of a basement and informing the house's owner she's "got a shitload of rats down there," and then proceeds to shove that foot up the audience's ass for two hours. It's like watching someone beat the hell out of your favorite toy till it's nothing more than dust, then trample on it to prove the point. Linklater, whose intimate Before Sunset was an art-house wonder last year, proved that he could make mainstream money with School of Rock. With Bad News Bears, he proves he can waste it too.
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