The Bad News Bears (1976)

21 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Bad News Bears” has been copied several times into deplorable children’s sports underdog stories. But really, only the gimmick is copied. The gimmick is this—a children’s sports team, made up of the usual loser stereotypes, starts off the season as the underdogs and slowly but surely make their way to the championship, leading to the Big Game. “The Bad News Bears” has something more than that. For one thing, this film has a ton of laughs, none of which have to do with bodily functions. But also, it’s more a story of the adults, acting as a social commentary. It’s mainly about the coaches of opposing Little League baseball teams (one of which is a boozehound) and how competition is a staple of their jobs. They want to prove to each other which is the easiest advantage, and with the Little Leaguers actually competing, that notion rubs off on them.

“The Bad News Bears” is an entertaining, funny movie about the worst Little League team in the state, if not the whole world. They’re unfocused, untalented, and uncoordinated. These kids wouldn’t have had a chance to play on a field if it weren’t for a lawsuit filed by the father of one of the kids, stating that every kid should get the chance to play baseball. The team includes: a fat kid who eats chocolate a lot, a little loudmouth always looking for a fight, a kid with glasses who knows more baseball statistics than anyone else, an African-American kid obsessed with being like Hank Aaron, a couple of Hispanics, and a shy kid whom the loudmouth describes as a “booger-eating spaz.”

Their coach is Buttermaker (Walter Matthau)—an alcoholic, loner, former minor league player who cleans pools for a living, and is being paid to coach this team, called the Bears. He brings booze to the dugout, gets one of the kids to mix him a cocktail at one point, and even passes out right there on the pitcher’s mound during practice. Even the kids can see he’s a real loser. The first game comes along and of course, the Bears get humiliated, and even more so when Buttermaker calls it quits in the middle. Starting to care, Buttermaker stays on the job and does what he can to improve the Bears’ playing.

Along the way, he finds two more kids to bring to the team. One is Amanda (Tatum O’Neal), the 11-year-old daughter of Buttermaker’s former girlfriend who has a mean curveball. She becomes the Bears’ pitcher. The other is a juvenile delinquent named Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley), who always hangs around the field with his motorcycle and cigarettes. Turns out he’s a natural athlete. With these two new recruits, the Bears win their first game and continue an impressive streak, making their way to the championship, and of course, bringing Buttermaker to ask more from the other kids (like having one of the kids take a hit from a baseball just to get on base). And need I also mention that the opposing team is the same team from that disastrous first game, led by the heavily competitive coach Turner (Vic Morrow)? Buttermaker is now stooping to his level, but Turner has his more extreme levels, pushing his son—the star player—to the point of actually hitting him right there on the field.

I won’t give away the resolution of the Big Game, but let it be said that “The Bad News Bears” has an ending that is not about winning or losing, but how to play the game and how to deal with the outcome.

The baseball sequences, while telling this parable of competition, are pretty solid and entertaining. I can think of sports movies where I get tired after a while. But not here. I’m not just saying this because I’m an admirer of baseball, but because these scenes are well-shot and look like actual baseball games, only we’re put into the action.

The comedy of “The Bad News Bears” works well. Walter Matthau is an always-appealing performer and has a distinct personality that fits this role of the weary Buttermaker. There are great one-liners in the movie, some of which said by Joyce van Patten as the league manager, and most of which delivered by the kids. But the grand slam of “The Bad News Bears” is how the director Michael Ritchie portrays these kids. Their stereotypes are consistently funny, but they talk in a way that most kids that age talked. They yell, they shout, they complain, they spout profanities (everything except the F-word). These seem like real kids. They even say “no” to athletic supporters because they’re “uncomfortable.”

Most of the kids are very good actors—in particular, Jackie Earle Haley is winning as the local troublemaker and Chris Barnes steals many scenes as the little tough guy. But I have to admit, Tatum O’Neal, despite being a good young actress and playing a credible girl character in this movie, really annoyed me. It just seemed like she was trying too hard to make Amanda more sophisticated than she needed to be, or should be. She’s just sort of peculiar that way.

“The Bad News Bears” is a cynical look at competition in America, told through Little League baseball, but it’s shot and acted with a real positive attitude that it’s hard to hate it. It’s an entertaining movie and a true underdog story.

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