Like the sandlot baseball team it portrays, Bad News Bears ain't perfect. But Richard Linklater's remake of the 1976 comedy is a pungent antidote to feel-good sports movies past and present.
Rejecting both civility and the concept of role models, the story's default father figure is Buttermaker (Billy Bob Thornton), an aging, washed-up and alcoholic pro pitcher whom Linklater introduces as on a par with the rodents he poisons for a living. Hired by an overzealous career-woman single mom (played by Marcia Gay Harden) to coach her son's team of misfits and rejects, Buttermaker starts out two floors below give-a-crap, but ends up headed for the inevitable championship showdown with a team coached by a hypercompetitive tightass (played by Greg Kinnear).
Bears forages for laughs in bad behavior, here both by kids and directed toward them; one irony is that contemporary child-rearing sensitivities might make this remake more transgressive than its source. Some of these Bears are geeks or merely quietly average: an African-American, bespectacled Latino brothers, kids of Armenian and Indian descent, a space cadet and a boy in a wheelchair. But the most noticeable include a foul-mouthed heavyweight named Engelberg; a shrimpy blond ball of chip-on-shoulder fury named Tanner; ace pitcher Amanda, who's also the embittered daughter of Buttermaker's ex; and Kelly, a long-haired motorbike-riding bad boy. For his part, Buttermaker -- in tattoos and Mephistophelian soul patch -- not only swills beer and booze, but counsels his charges to lie to their parents, and garners uniform-logo sponsorship from a strip club.
Linklater seems to be working a theme after 2003's School of Rock. That comedy about adolescent underdogs featured a showy loser-cum-mentor role tailor-made for Jack Black. But where Black merely had to be impish, Thornton has to pull off reprehensible -- a womanizing jerk who can come clean about his failings only to a bunch of uncomprehending kids. He manages the role well enough that it makes the film harder to laugh at, and indeed -- despite agreeably rough-edged performances by its young actors -- the main problem with Bears is that it ought to be funnier.
Its message about adults warping kids' games with vicarious dreams notwithstanding, Bears isn't the place to turn for lessons about sportsmanship or much else, except maybe not taking yourself too seriously. But that's welcome in an era when sports movies "for adults" -- Miracle, Seabiscuit, Cinderella Man -- tend toward irony-deprived melodrama and sanctimonious nostalgia. In Bad News Bears, everybody's wrong at least part of the time and the losers end up happier than the winners. It's not a lesson so much as a way of looking at the world. On a hot summer night, kids and adults could do worse.