The Bad News Bears February 24, 2020
Jackie Earle Haley
Joyce Van Patten
1 Hr., 42 Mins.
he Bad News Bears (1976), written by Bill Lancaster and directed by Michael Ritchie, has a premise that tends to be refashioned in various ways for new generations in sports movies. In the film, a baseball team, made almost completely up of young people we’d consider benchwarmers, has until the end of the film to turn things around and become champions. Subversively, The Bad News Bears
rolls its eyes at that kind of thing. It doesn’t take long in this sardonic movie for everyone involved to clarify that this is more like real life, not a boringly inspirational family feature. It doesn't pander to an overwrought, contrived kind of optimism. So pessimistic is it that its ending — a poison-dipped letter to feel-good last acts — makes us consider that maybe the film, in toto, could even be a metaphor for the dog-eat-dog nature of the working world. These kids are just now starting to get a taste of it.
It’s a good thing that Walter Matthau is the lead in The Bad News Bears; I'm not sure who could take on the role without resorting to caricature. Here Matthau riffs on the type of character he recurrently played throughout his career: the tough, cigar-chomping cynic who pronounces, say, “burger” like “boigah.” He has a convincing world-weariness that sets the stage for the movie in store. In the film Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker, an alcoholic who used to pitch in the minor leagues. Buttermaker considers his baseball career part of a different lifetime — best left in the past. As the film opens, though, this changes when he’s asked by his friend, a lawyer and councilman named Bob Whitewood (Ben Piazza), to helm the Bears, a youth baseball team.
Buttermaker wants to firmly say that he's disinterested. But he feels obligated. (He’s also someone who can be persuaded by a dollar or two.) Recently, Whitewood filed a lawsuit against the Southern California Youth Baseball League, which had controversially disallowed local weak-links from joining any of its teams. (Whitewood is so concerned because his son, the David Staumbaugh-portrayed Toby, was victimized by the league’s decision.) The remedy to this, in Whitewood's mind, is to foster an illegal team comprised entirely of the so-called undesirables. With the support of the great-in-his-day Buttermaker, Whitewood figures that some remedying could be done.
But to make the team — christened the Bears — conventionally “good” doesn't seem very feasible. Its members, in addition to simply being disillusioned given their reject status, are not innately gifted athletes and know they aren’t. The Bears’ first game goes so badly that Buttermaker has to call for a forfeit. So he reasons, after some deliberation, that recruiting at least one skilled player might up the chances of the crew being efficient enough to at least be called mediocre. To his eye, that one skilled player is Amanda (Tatum O’Neal), a savvy 11-year-old whose mother Buttermaker used to date. (During that courtship, the latter trained Amanda; on the down low, she’s continued practicing her pitching skills sans Buttermaker.)
It takes some convincing to get Amanda to join to Bears. At an age where she’s starting to feel insecure about being referred to as a “tomboy,” she enlists on the conditions that Buttermaker pay for two of the things that would weaken the distinction: ballet lessons, imported blue jeans. Buttermaker agrees. Then, a little into her tenure, Amanda also helps conscript Kelly (Jackie Earle Haley), an infamous schoolyard rapscallion who also happens to be one of the unsung athletic heroes among local middle-schoolers.
Expectedly in The Bad News Bears, there’s an emphasis put on the games themselves; most of the final act is taken up by a melee against the Yankees, indisputably the most talented and ruthless team in the league. The film is best, though, when functioning as a hangout movie, the twist being that the majority of these people struggle to get along, resulting in some terrifically barbed comedy. The kid actors are excellent. All possessing a preternatural wit uncommon for child actors (Alfred Lutter was also great in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, from 1974), they’re put to good use by Ritchie and Lancaster, who have a persuasive sense of how prematurely disabused middle-schoolers would talk and act in a situation like this one.
Especially first-rate are the scenes featuring just Matthau and O’Neal, who, while also being the most well-drawn characters in The Bad News Bears, have a funny, jagged onscreen relationship. It’s clear, almost from the first time we see them interact, that even though Buttermaker and Amanda, Sr.’s romance has irreparably spoiled, it was disappointing for the short-term, quasi-avuncular connection to have to come to an end, too. In Amanda did Buttermaker have a protégé worthy of his time and energy as a new coach, and in Buttermaker did Amanda have an unexpectedly understanding father figure who nurtured many of the interests that she became increasingly nervous about expressing as she got older. In The Bad News Bears, they have to learn how to both rebuild a friendly rapport and establish a mutually beneficial professional bond. The film is funniest and most profusely emotional during their sporadic but crucial one-on-ones, where we can see their unconventional affinity mending, if cautiously. The natural-seeming rehabilitation of their friendship subtly complements the upward if bumpy slope of the main narrative. It also speaks to the film’s refreshing, broader idea that sometimes winning, or attaining a simple, favorable outcome, isn’t always as meaningful as what it takes for someone to get there. B+