Billy Bob Thornton twisted our image of the kindly Father Christmas in Bad Santa and continues his despicable ways with Richard Linkater’s (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, The School Of Rock) remake of the 1976 baseball flick, Bad News Bears, which starred Walter Matthau as the irreverent coach and Tatum O’Neal as the talented pitcher. Thornton plays Morris Buttermaker, a short-lived major league baseball player. He pitched two thirds of innings years ago and has been living off the glory ever since. These days – Buttermaker is a washed up, perpetually drun pest exterminator and an unlikely choice of coach for a kids’ baseball team. But he takes up the coaching job when offered by uptight mother and solicitor, Liz Whitewood (Marcia Gay Harden), with a cash sweetener of course. The Bears roster is varied and most are completely inept at baseball. They include Matthew Hooper (Troy Gentile), who’s wheelchair bound, computer geek, Prem Lahiri (Aman Johal) and the little monster of the group, an angry Tanner Boyle (Timmy Deters), reprising one of the more memorable characters from the original movie. Initially, Buttermaker couldn’t give a damn about The Bears, but soon realizes that he does have something to offer them – from helpful baseball tips to seriously flawed life advice. To give them a fighting chance, he enlists two talented recruits, the star pitcher, Amanda Whurlitzer (Sammi Kane Kraft) and Kelly Leak (Jeff Davies). His team of losers are shaped into potential winners, pitted in the finals against the Yankees, headed by all American coach, Ray Bullock, a perfectly slimy Greg Kinnear. Screenwriters, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa who co-wrote Bad Santa have created a perfect vehicle for Billy Bob Thornton, to hone his Bad Santa character, Willie, into a more sympathetic personality, under an equally sozzled exterior. But don’t expect to be shocked because Buttermaker is less offensive, due to a lower rating. The language is toned down, which means the insults are more creative, especially coming from the mouths of the kids. Each year we’re inundated with precocious kids sports films that harp on about the importance of teamwork. This year, the biggest offender was another baseball film, Kicking and Screaming, which starred Will Ferrel and was appallingly unfunny, clichéd and predictable. It’s almost a miracle that Bad News Bears avoids that trap. It works because Linklater’s direction is uncomplicated, avoiding cheesy laughs and false sentimentality. This is no match for the rascally Bad Santa – which was an unrelenting black comedy and none of the child actor’s stand out, but Thornton’s roguish charm will keep you glued and you might just have a ball.
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