by Jeff Reichert
Bad News Bears
Dir. Richard Linklater, U.S., Paramount Pictures
If there’s any doubt that 2005’s midsummer remake of Bad News Bears is a Richard Linklater film, vindication comes in its final shot. As the nearly victorious (or morally victorious as Marcia Gay Harden’s Liz Whitewood offers) Bears celebrate their brush with greatness amidst sprays of non-alcoholic beer, the camera cuts back to a panoramic view of the diamond and cranes slowly upward to reveal nothing less than the stars and stripes proudly waving in the breeze, maybe the cleanest, most vibrant iteration of them I’ve seen in quite some time. While it’s obvious, subversive, and obviously subversive all at the same time, if you hadn’t guessed by this point that Linklater’s gaggle of cripples, immigrants, miscreants, and neurotics fronted by a washed-up drunk is meant as some alternative-to-the-norm U.S. of A cross-section, here’s your gentle reminder. Considering how directly Bad News Bears is aimed at the mainstream of cinemagoers (even more immediately approachable than School of Rock), it comes off as a clever and surprisingly graceful way to drive his point home. Pun intended. As embarrassing as it’s often been to be an American in the Bush II era, Rick’s still finding pockets of dissonance (friendly as they are) worth flying the flag over. and it’s hard not to feel some kind of patriotic stirrings at the sight of it.
As genially foulmouthed as one would expect, given a collaboration with the writer and star of Bad Santa, Bad News Bears is about as charmingly unchallenging a film I’ve seen in ’05 (Sky High and Junebug come surprisingly close), which may sound like faint praise coming from a serious critical journal like the one you’re currently reading, but when pitted against its brethren in another soulless summer (The Beat That My Heart Skipped, The Island, Stealth, Last Days) consider it a wholehearted endorsement. I’m too far removed from the original to offer a real compare and contrast, but suffice it to say that there’s an obvious strand of velvety rebelliousness in this classic tale that finds a kindred soul in the creator of Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and SubUrbia. And though hopping onto another film ostensibly for children so soon after School of Rock’s mammoth, unexpected success might reek of opportunism to some, it only made me wish most of the crap I saw as a kid was half this good. Though some might complain that he’s taking time from more ”serious” work to play in studioland, to level such an accusation is to ignore the versatility that makes him unique in American cinema. (If every studio movie was a Linklater film, the world might be a far better place.) Same goes for Billy Bob Thornton—his Morris Buttermaker is a lightly censored, more emotional Bad Santa retread, but I’d rather watch him try out all the different modes of crassness than continue paying to witness Bill Murray’s slide into overweening immobility.
Sure Bad News Bears employs its fair share of shorthand stereotypes (ethnic, mostly played—successfully—for laughs), features more than a few moments where characters hit realizations before the narrative’s quite caught up with them (sometimes a problem of inexperienced child actors), and if you’re averse to the training/winning montage, you might have troubling swallowing significant sections, but all the familiar stuff Linklater trots out merely proves that it’s not the material that’s grown shopworn, just the careless way most hacks sleepwalk through it. Pay attention, put some effort into casting (like convincing Greg Kinnear to mug skillfully through a thoroughly thankless role), and don’t be afraid to push the old PG-13 barrier—a simple recipe that provided myself and a Reverse Shot colleague a pretty hilarious afternoon. If there’s one thing to be learned from the entire package (the Bad News Bears narrative itself and Linklater’s handling of it) it’s that with a little patience, attention, and care even a steaming pile of shit can turn out all right. May we be lucky enough to say the same about the U.S. come ’09.