Before we get into this week’s review I want to revisit last week’s for a minute. It drew a very interesting twitter thread in response that pointed out that the movie is much more satirical than I was giving it credit for. That being said, I still don’t have much nice to say about the film. There may have been plenty of satire involved but the satire is too implicit; you can tell because it didn’t just go over my head but goes over the heads of a lot of people who think it’s telling them that how they behave is appropriate instead of satirizing how it is not. That being said, it wasn’t quite as bad as I had described it, It seems it may have been trying to do something interesting; it just didn’t quite get there.
OK. So let’s talk about the remake. Which came nearly 30 years later but still 15 years before now. The most interesting thing about this movie is how it’s similar to the original and where it chooses to differ. Some scenes have identical intentions and dialog while others may seem similar on the surface, but reveal very different kinds of motivations. The main plot threads are left intact, though the small changes and performances give them different nuances. One of the things that I’m glad they kept, even though I kind of hated it in the first movie, was putting the montages to classical orchestral music. The montages in this movie were not as slow or as long as in the first film so they weren’t as painful to watch and the inclusion of the music made them feel nostalgic. It’s not something that would have worked if it hadn’t been a direct reference to the original, but it was, so it did.
The biggest difference, to my way of thinking, is that Billy Bob Thornton’s performance as Morris Buttermaker has way more energy than Walter Matthau’s. Matthau is a very talented comedic actor but, to be entirely frank, his performance in The Bad News Bears was awful. Maybe he was directed that way, maybe it was funnier in 1976, or maybe he was leaning too hard into the realism of what dealing with a lazy drunk might be like. Whatever the case, it often made the movie drag. Thornton’s character, however, moves and speaks as if he has somewhere to be even if he’d rather not go. While Matthau’s expression seldom changed from a sort of grimace, Thornton’s expressions light up his face and clue us into his feelings so we can better identify with his choices. Simply put, it’s a major improvement over the original.
The second biggest change was that the movie leaned harder into the satire of the parents not paying enough attention to their kids than the first did. This resulted in both a funnier and more pointed message. This still isn’t perfect because the parent they focus the satire on is a single mom. Now obviously, she pays very little attention to her kid for her desire to do so many other things (and to be noticed doing them) and that is a problem. But single mothers are not the demographic I think I’d go after first for not paying enough attention to their kids.
Some things I complained about last week still didn’t change. There’s still some child abuse, but Buttermaker doesn’t throw anything at anyone and the worst he does is pull a kid in roughly. Still not what you want to see, but not as bad as what we saw last week. Also, it’s not played for laughs at all and Buttermaker is clearly on the verge of becoming a villain, himself, at that point. The part of the movie where the Yankees coach tells his son to pitch around Engelberg, the pitcher throws at Engelberg, and the coach roughs him up is also still here. But instead of hitting him, the coach shoves him. And this time the whole stadium watches, breathless in disapproval. His mother also pulls the kid out of the game after the kid gets revenge and leaves instead of just yelling at the coach. So the reaction is a bit more appropriate and the movie no longer presents child abuse sans judgment.
Which brings us to another change in this film; it has a much clearer impetus for Buttermaker to put the subs in this time than in the original. At the very beginning of the movie, the Yankees’ coach makes it clear that he feels winning is the most important thing. Swapping out Rudi for Garo in the championship game also works to the film’s advantage as Garo’s motivation for wanting to hit is now more obvious - to impress his father who does not understand the game - and therefore the audience more readily senses Buttermaker’s villainy in requiring him to not swing. These things, in addition to the upgraded reaction to the Yankees’ coach’s abusive behavior, make it easier to see how Buttermaker might want to make a change. It’s still not as clear as it probably should be, but at least you can see a vague outline of the dots that could be connected that way; they were entirely invisible in the first incarnation.
One thing the movie does not improve is the aforementioned Yankees abuse scene. In both films the message is a bit muddied because what he’s telling his son is a good message - don’t throw at people intentionally, you might hurt them. The tone used in both movies also isn’t angry, it’s fearful as if for Engelberg’s life and health. None of this excuses the abusive behavior, but it muddies up the waters in a way that simply wasn’t necessary. If, instead, he assaulted the kid for being disobeyed instead of in fear for another kid’s safety, the message would have been a lot clearer.
Finally, I want to talk about how this movie handles bigotry versus how the first movie did. The first movie has the kids casually using racial and homophobic slurs. Some people have alleged that this was done in part to try to shock audience members into realizing that the things they said would be repeated by their children and everyone assures me this is simply how kids talked in the ‘70s. Let’s disregard the latter part because authenticity is no reason to include something so potentially hurtful without any contextualization. However, let’s also assume that the former is true and it was how they could best think to do it in the ‘70s. If that’s the case, then this aspect was well-updated for the 2005 version. There is only one racial slur used in this movie and its given by a kid who gets punched in the mouth for it later. However, that’s not all the racism that’s in the movie. Billy Bob’s Buttermaker assumes that Ahmad’s number 25 is for a black baseball player and expresses disbelief when he insists it’s for Mark McGwire because they’re from the same area. He also can’t be bothered to remember the names of the non-white kids for much of the film and makes flippant jokes about Garo’s place of birth. This is what a lot of racism looks like in 2005 (and 2020.) People have mostly learned not to shout the n-word - at least not in public places without checking that everyone is cool with it - but they intentionally and unintentionally make people with different skin tones or kinds of names feel as if they are “other.”
That said, I think the initial assumption is faulty. If the behaviors represented in the film were supposed to highlight how wrong they were they didn’t do a very good job of it. No one ever gets in trouble for any of these behaviors and the affected kids mostly shrug it off. But these are both very bad things and even if the affected people can and do shrug it off, we still need to be better and neither movie sufficiently followed through on delivering that part of the message.
That said, I did enjoy this movie more than the 1976 version and I feel it holds up a bit better. Of course, this movie is nearly 30 years younger. Will we look back at 2005’s Bad News Bears from 2050 and still be able to say it holds up? Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath. But it’s a solid example of how times change and progress can be made. We’re none of us perfect, but if we keep trying, we can be a little bit better than we were yesterday. As Buttermaker says, “These things take time.”
Oh, one last thing. Non-alcoholic beer actually still has alcohol in it - just a lot less than normal - and is illegal to serve to minors or consume while driving/operating heavy machinery. So don’t give that to your little league teams, either.