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Bad News Bears
Richard Linklater's underachieving Bears
BY PETER KEOUGH
BAD NEWS BEARS
Directed by Richard Linklater | Written by Bill Lancaster + Glenn Ficarra + John Requa | With Billy Bob Thornton + Marcia Gay Harden + Greg Kinnear + Sammi Kraft + Jeff Davies | A Paramount Pictures release | 111 minutes
At the Apple Valley + Entertainment + Flagship + Providence Place 16 + Showcase + Triboro


Bearing up

Or, Richard Linklater bares all

fNEW YORK CITY ó Bad News Bears might be the least original film Richard Linklater has made, but it's also the most personal. Slacker (1991), Before Sunrise (1995), and Waking Life (2001) established him as a leading independent director. School of Rock (2003) proved that he could hold his own with the studios. Heís even done a sequel: Before Sunset (2004), the long-distance follow-up to Before Sunrise. But a remake?

"It was like, this movie needed me in some way," he explains. "Like I am the guy who would make this not suck as bad as it could. You gotta feel youíre the only guy who can do the movie, even though youíre not. You still feel like ĎIím the guy.í "

The reason? Partly an affinity for the films of Michael Winner, who directed the original Bad News Bears in 1976. ("A Hal Ashby type of the í70s. Itís like, ĎWow, thatís a studio film?í ") Partly the filmís slacker attitude. "The crappy attitude of the loser pissed-off kid always pressured to win. Kids donít win. You spend most of your childhood losing rather than winning. The good thing about this remake, I tell people, is, if this was an original screenplay idea, it wouldnít get made. Thereís no way any Hollywood studio would touch this. As a family movie, a kid movie. Itís just too . . . wrong, too rough. But since it was a successful earlier film, it kind of gets you off the hook. It allows us to get this film made."

Mostly, though, Linklater feels connected to this movie because it lets him reconcile himself with his secret past. "I was a baseball player and I always wanted to make a baseball movie. I went to college on a baseball scholarship and my career ended overnight. I had a heart condition and I couldnít really run anymore. You know, one day youíre batting third in the line-up, playing in left field, knocking in runs. The next day, youíre focusing on drama classes."

In retrospect, perhaps the heart problem was a blessing. Had Linklater persevered in baseball, maybe now heíd be coaching a Little League team instead of making a film about someone who is.

"My career would be over," the 44-year-old director acknowledges. "Iím like Cal Ripkenís age, you know, sort of long-retired. Although Clemens is still going. I played against him in high school."

Roger Clemens?

"I wonít get into it. But heís a lot better now, he was good in high school, but he got really good in college. I have the utmost respect for him. I donít know if I could have hit major-league pitching. But I could hit the long ball. And so this movie put together two distinct parts of my life. There was my baseball life, I mean, I was always writing, and creative and stuff, but I wanted to be a pro baseball player who actually was a writer too. And when that was over, I never picked up a sports page or a bat; just film was my life. Itís only recently Iíve been saying that I played baseball. No one knew. It wasnít on my résumé for 10 years, because it just didnít seem like me. The me who was making movies wasnít the me who was that. But now Iíve reconciled them. This movie has been a lot of fun, even cathartic in bringing my two worlds together, so ultimately itís a really personal film."

What other secrets has Linklater not told us about? His next film will be an animated adaptation of Philip K. Dickís novel A Scanner Darkly. Was he a drug-addicted undercover cop?

"Itís really personal, maybe the most personal, uh, itís about an undercover narcotics agent whoís hooked on this drug that is causing a brain split in him, but heís assigned to observe himself and his friends. Itís a future world where thereís a lot of surveillance, a lot of stuff like Big Brother. I shot it like a year ago; weíre animating now. This is a little more film-like than Waking Life, more designed, much more advanced. Itís not all hand-held. Itís like a real film and it looks like a graphic novel. Itís really cool. But itís really our future, itís very contemporary."

_PK

RELATED LINKS

Bad News Bears' official Web site

Gerald Perry talks with Richard Linklater about Before Sunset and Before Sunrise

Chris Fujiwara reviews Before Sunset.

Given his eerie and seductive Waking Life, Richard Linklaterís version of The Island would have been something to see. Not so with his Bad News Bears. What went wrong? Linklater had converted the likely treacle of School of Rock into a primer of how a "kids" movie should be made. Here he had the proven material of the 1976 original, a near-perfect blend of cynicism and sentiment, wholesomeness and scatology. He had Billy Bob Thornton, whose Bad Santa will live on as one of the most hilarious of cinema misanthropes. He even had the two guys who wrote Bad Santa, a screenplay proudly defying standards of decency and good taste.

That might be the problem: the difference between this film and the one from three decades ago is political correctness. Now we can have fart jokes, but as for humor that might violate anyoneís sense of outrage, good luck. Such political correctness, is in fact, confronted head on by the filmís premise. The Bears are a team of misfits established by Liz Whitewood (Marcia Gay Harden), an attorney, community activist, and single mother who sees no reason why underachieving children should not be allowed to compete in the local Little League. (A cut to the surly kid in a wheelchair is bound to get a laugh.) To coach these losers she hires Morris Buttermaker (Thornton), a former minor-league pitcher (he once struck out Mike Schmidt) and current drunk and exterminator who could use the extra cash. Hereís Thornton at his best, bouncing batting practice pitches off his hapless players while rambling incoherently. It almost makes you forget Walter Matthauís rumpled, dyspeptic asshole with a heart of gold.

Too bad Linklater and company couldnít forget him. Instead, they adhere slavishly to the original, the only differences being what has been omitted (kids smoking cigarettes, drinking, uttering the "n" word) to fit the finicky times. Or diluted, like the character of Bullock, the coach of the hated Yankees. Played by Greg Kinnear, heís no match for the brooding menace and lingering machismo of Vic Morrow in the 1976 version. When Morrow went out to the mound to comment on his sonís pitching, he didnít just knock the boyís hat off, he knocked him down.

No such menace or edge lies behind this version. Its best player, Thornton, has his nihilistic glee replaced by an ersatz version of Matthauís fuddy-duddiness. Every pitch is predictable, and theyíre all hanging curves. Like all Linklaterís films, Bad News Bearsis a paean to underachievers; here, though, the biggest underachiever is Linklater himself.

 


Issue Date: July 22 - 28, 2005
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