Bad News Bears, The

Instead of going back and trying to do justice to good ideas-turned-bad films like 1978’s “Matilda,” which starred Elliot Gould as a small-time talent agent who sees his big score when he comes across a boxing kangaroo, or 1981’s “Going Ape,” featuring Tony Danza as the son of a circus owner who inherits five million dollars, three orangutans and Danny DeVito, we are treated to middling revisions of classics like “Psycho” and “Planet of the Apes.” So when word broke that Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the writers behind last year’s brilliant and subversive “Bad Santa” were paid nearly a million dollars for pitching a remake of the 1976 sports comedy classic “The Bad News Bears,” one would expect a substantial change to the story of an older former professional ballplayer turned pool cleaner who takes on a team of misfits Little Leaguers.

Nope. In fact, in reviewing a draft of Ficarra and Requa’s script, dated July 27, 2004, against the original film, there are only minor superficial changes to modernize the story, while much of Bill Lancaster’s brilliant and hilarious dialogue remains intact. Which is not to say the new film will be a complete waste of time. Casting Billy Bob Thornton as Morris Buttermaker is a major stroke of genius. There is probably no better actor working today who could emulate the crustiness of Walter Matthau’s original character while remaining true to his own persona. This time around, Buttermaker, now an exterminator, is hired by Liz Whitewood, in the original, a councilman, now a single mother and attorney to be played by Maria Gay Harden, who has successfully sued the local Little League to include her son Toby and a group of other “undesirable” kids in a new team, the Bears.

The team still includes Tanner, the small-for-his-age pissed-off shortstop, Mike Engleberg, the overweight catcher (who is now on a modified Atkins diet), Timmy Lupus, the booger-eating sheepish kid, and Miguel and Jose Agilar, Mexican brothers who don’t speak a word of English. Ahmad Abdul Rahim, while remaining an African-American, is now a straight-laced young man who admires Mark McGwire. Parts of Ogilvie and Stein have mixed together to become Prem Lahiri, a bespectacled Bengali brainiac, and Garo Daragebragadian, a tall Armenian. The one new completely teammate is Matt Hooper, a self-deprecating paraplegic whose asides are always met with uncomfortable silences. These bad Bears slowly begin to see their fortunes change with the addition of Amanda Whurlitzer, the daughter of one of Buttermaker’s former girlfriends and the possessor of a hell of a curveball, and Kelly Leak, local dirtbike-riding tough kid who also happens to be the best ball player in the area if he ever actually felt like playing. Their main nemeses are still the Yankees, who are still lead by a real jerk (originally Vic Morrow as Roy Turner, now Greg Kinnear as Roy Bullock). In fact, so much of this version is a carbon copy of the original, one might think it would be more financially prudent to just clean up and remaster the negative of the 1976 movie and release it in 2006 as a thirtieth anniversary special edition. But then that would mean missing out on Billy Bob Thornton’s ultimate ascension as this generation’s Walter Matthau, something cinema has been sorely lacking since the passing of the original. Maybe the next big Paramount remake can be Thornton and Kevin Spacey (who seemed to have wanted to be the next Jack Lemmon before trying to become the next BobbY Darin) in “The Odd Couple.”

What will be interesting to watch as this film comes closer to release is how the MPAA’s ratings board will react. Lines that earned the film a PG rating in 1976 and scenes of children holding bottles of beer, presented almost exactly the same way in 2005, might earn the film a PG-13 or even an R rating. Have we as a nation become that somber a country, where things we found hilarious in our youth are now to be kept away from our childrenr I really do want to answer that question, but I’m trying to keep this article suitable for all audiences.

Rating: B+