Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, in honor of his latest film Where’d You Go, Bernadette? we turn our eye to Austin’s favored son, Richard Linklater. Read the rest of our coverage here.
The most interesting thing about 2005’s Bad News Bears is that it was made at the same time and by the same director as Boyhood. When watching it, you can’t help but think about the movies whose ghosts haunt it, from the original 1976 Bad News Bears to director Richard Linklater’s earlier picture School of Rock.
While it’s not an outright bad movie, everything that Bad News Bears does or tries to do was done better in another film somewhere along the way, which makes it ultimately feel like something of a wasted endeavor. In the final scene of the film, when one character looks down at a can of beer and remarks, “Non-alcoholic? What’s the point?” it feels a bit like the film is unknowingly judging itself.
Two years before his Bad News Bears, Linklater achieved the kind of crossover commercial success that had long eluded him. The family-friendly Jack Black vehicle School of Rock was a miracle – every bit of it was charming, it was laugh-out-loud funny, it had fist-pumping scenes of inspiration, and it cemented a new star in Black. Amazingly, Linklater managed to do all this without losing the core humanism that typified his indie film work.
Bad News Bears came soon after, and it seemed to follow the same formula as the earlier movie. Take a lead actor with a lot of offbeat charisma, pair him with a bunch of kids, stick them in an underdog-overcomes-the-odds story, carefully toe the PG-13 line, and watch as the crowds pour in.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Buttermaker, a surly former baseball player whose career flamed out after less than one inning in the major leagues. He drinks, he smokes, he swears, he’s politically incorrect, and he doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of him. With his lean, tattooed arms and graying handlebar mustache, he looks like if nicotine took a human form.
When litigious Type-A mother Ms. Whitewood (Marcia Gay Harden) sues the local Little League so that they’ll allow her unathletic son to play, a team of rejects, outcasts, and misfits is hastily assembled, and Buttermaker is reluctantly recruited to coach. The ‘Bad News’ Bears has the usual assemblage of ragtag types you’d expect in this kind of movie – the fat kid, the brainy Indian kid, the pipsqueak with the Napoleon complex, etc.
Bears is shockingly free of personality, especially for Linklater.
Right away, one problem becomes clear: the ensemble here doesn’t work as it should. Thornton’s Buttermaker has a simmering, hungover energy (or lack thereof) that’s sometimes amusing, but rarely hilarious, at least for this kind of film. Two years earlier, Thornton was the title character in Bad Santa, which is the better version of this kind of character – he was meaner, more bitter, and more of a loser, which gave the film a saltier vibe more subversive than what Bad News Bears occasionally hints at.
Which is not to say they don’t try — every kid gets an arc, but it’s all the same arc. When the Bears, having shaped up, play their overachieving rivals in the big game at the end, practically every kid get a variation on the same scene: going to the plate with low self-confidence, getting two strikes, hearing a quick word of encouragement from Thornton, then hitting and getting on base. It’s repetitive, even for the formulaic territory of a sports comedy
What’s more, Bears is shockingly free of personality, especially for Linklater. A former high school baseball standout, Linklater (who’d later knock one out of the park with the deeply enjoyable Everybody Wants Some!!) should bring a personal touch to the material, but it all feels very rote and undistinguished. It all reads as ‘movie baseball’ rather than real baseball, and middling movie baseball at that.
Between Thornton’s intentionally burnt-out performance, the unmemorable kids, and the lackluster baseball scenes, the audience hopes for Linklater to come in with the kind of cool, hangout atmosphere he brings to his other movies, but here he let us down. Scenes open on close-ups of the chests of Hooters waitresses; a scene is soundtracked to John Fogerty’s “Centerfield”; even a scene where pitching prodigy Amanda (the late baseball player Sammi Kane Kraft) visits a local rock club with her crush disappoints by feeling more like Nickelodeon than a reasonably-toned down version of the Emporium scene in Dazed and Confused.
To be sure, there are good jokes and moments in Bad News Bears, so it’s neither a total slog nor a collection of cringing moments. But for the most part, it’s so low energy and so generic that it’s hard to see how Linklater put his name on it. While making this, probably his most commercially-minded movie, Linklater was in the midst of his massive 12-year-long achievement Boyhood, a film that only he could have made. The worst part about Bad News Bears is that it feels like a film anybody else could have made.