Minor league fun

Rated 3.0

Both as a summer flick and a raucous comic entertainment, the Bad News Bears remake has a lot of little things going for it. And while not much of that really adds up to anything of the must-see variety, Richard Linklater’s new version of the 1976 hit will reward viewers who remember that Linklater is a filmmaker who has excelled in gonzo comedy (School of Rock) as well as in so-called art movies (Before Sunrise, etc.).

The Linklater Bad News Bears is largely faithful to the original, with a somewhat broken-down ex-ballplayer (Billy Bob Thornton in the role originally played by Walter Matthau) taking on the job of coaching a Little League team made up of (mostly) pre-adolescent misfits. It’s still a predictable comedy of redemption made more engaging by rowdy humor and anarchic whimsy.

All in all, Linklater and company have committed a successful act of revival on both the spirit and the letter of the original, while also working small variations—Thornton, working amiably in his Bad Santa mode, is a somewhat different animal from the late, great Walter Matthau, but the disarmingly rumpled air of tragicomic misadventure remains intact in his version of Coach Buttermaker. And the rambunctious comedy of political incorrectness has been updated and adjusted a bit while preserving the basic spirit of rowdy farce in the antics of kids and coach alike.

Marcia Gay Harden is very good as the über-single mother and lawyer who sets the story in motion, and Greg Kinnear adroitly juggles comedy, drama and satire in the tricky role of Buttermaker’s key foil and antagonist among the rival Little League coaches. Sammi Kane Kraft stands out as the fireballing pitcher who is also Buttermaker’s somewhat alienated daughter.

Part of what Linklater brings to the new version is a matter of beguilingly casual nuance. Several bits of the baseball action are played out in single continuous takes which convey a charming authenticity in the moments where most Hollywood films would resort to the usual obvious tricks of editing. And the final shot in the film, also a somewhat longish take, highlights the American flag in a way that is both haunting and intriguingly mysterious.