In this remake of the well-known 1976 Walter Matthau film, Billy Bob Thorton assumes the role of a drunk, cigar-chomping, barely-was pro ball player bribed to coach a misfit youth baseball team. Liz, an aggressive lawyer/mom who sued to allow the team of lesser players into the elite kid’s league, “hires” Morris Buttermaker on the strength of his major league history. Buttermaker plans to do as little coaching as possible in exchange for his check.
“Practice” for the team consists of lots of swearing, helping Buttermaker kill rodents for his job as an exterminator, making him drinks, getting beaned by his pitches and watching him pass out on the mound. But after connecting with a few of the players, Buttermaker softens a little and decides to take some responsibility for helping them win.
He’s especially interested in beating Roy Bullock, the snide and aggressively competitive coach of the Yankees. With the help of two ringers, Buttermaker turns the squad around. Pitching phenom Amanda, 12, was “like a daughter to him” back when he dated her mom, and he woos her to play for the team with the promise of cash and time together. Bad-boy, dirt-bike riding Kelly Leak agrees to join up after being humiliated by Coach Bullock. When the rag-taggers start winning, hopes for an unlikely championship over the Yanks heat up.
Coach Buttermaker is an effective teacher. Mostly he teaches the boys how to swear, drink, smoke, lie and ogle women. But he also teaches them not to quit when things get tough and, eventually, that winning at sports is not as important as having fun, playing well and giving everyone a chance. In fact, the movie’s loudest message is that competitive adults who belittle and badger kids for the sake of victories are doing much more harm than good.
A speaker at a league opening-day ceremony says that in times like these we rely on “the grace of our Lord” and baseball, among other things.
Sexual content is where the new Bad News Bears differs most thoroughly from the original (which contained very little). Comments include Buttermaker telling an overweight kid he has “nice t-ts.” Amanda, 12, describes her dream of having “nice hips and C-cups” shortly before telling Buttermaker he “must have a big one” for her mom to have dated him. A boy watching Amanda pitch says he thinks he just entered puberty, and Buttermaker tells the team that for them a tie is like “kissing your hot stepsister.” When handing out “genital defense apparatuses” (cups), Buttermaker warns against sharing because “that’s how you get crabs,” and explains that you “don’t want to be combing through your pumpkin patch” looking for things.
The late-fortysomething Buttermaker stares at some college-age female softball players and says, “I never thought I’d hear myself saying ‘Look at the a-- on that second baseman.’” (He tries to pick her up after the game.) A boy states that if Buttermaker doesn’t get off his case, he’ll tell everyone the coach “touched my p-cker.”
The Bears are sponsored by Bo Peep’s Gentlemen’s Club, advertised with a female silhouette on the back of their uniforms throughout the film. A group of barely dressed strippers cheer for the team at all the games. Buttermaker takes the team of tween boys to celebrate their victories at Hooters (the camera leers at the waitresses, going in for close-up shots). One of the moms shows cleavage while coming on to Buttermaker and comments that women must like his bad-boy image; he admits he hasn’t “paid for sex in years.” When caught by her son while leaving the house early in the morning, Buttermaker lies about why he’s there. Two pre-teens briefly kiss.
Buttermaker describes to the team “b--ch slapping” an ump (who was a "bleeder”), causing him to need 14 stitches. For “batting practice,” a drunk Buttermaker beans each of the players in turn. Coach Bullock pushes his son around. A boy falls (without injury) from a moving car off-camera. Tanner, the shortstop, hits, trips and otherwise punishes opposing base runners. The players tussle with each other often. One bench-clearing brawl involves punches and kicks to sensitive areas. Bullies toss a passive kid in a porta-john and rock it; a teammate attacks them in his defense before getting dumped in a mud puddle.
Crude or Profane Language
The original Bad News Bears was controversial for its use of swearing by and at children. This version easily triples both the quantity and aggressiveness of that film’s bad language, and much more of it comes from the kids. The s-word, "h---" and "a--" are heard around 35 times each in various forms, along with regular uses of "d--n" and "b--ch." Jesus’ and God’s names are abused about five times each. One player uses the letters “FU”
Male anatomy is referenced repeatedly using multiple slang words. The words “homo” and “fag” are used as insults, as are “cracker,” “bastard,” “cornhole,” “jerk-off” and “bag of douche.” Bathroom humor is crude, creative and rampant. A girl’s dress is called a “hooker suit.”
Drug and Alcohol Content
Buttermaker is an acknowledged alcoholic (the team openly disparages him as a drunk), always with a well-stocked cooler of beer by his side. He usually mixes his beer with harder stuff, discovered open by kids riding in his car. He teaches the boys to make him drinks. At one point, he passes out inebriated during practice. He hands out non-alcoholic beers to the players after a game and shots of them drinking near-beer in celebration are played for humor.
Other Negative Elements
Buttermaker is insensitive and disrespectful about racial and disability issues with his multicultural team. He talks “black” with one African-American player who doesn’t really get it. He regularly confuses and dismisses the countries of origin for others. He and a few other players call a wheelchair-bound player a “cripple,” and he complains that his team is made up of “bronze medalists from the Special Olympics.” (In spite of all this, it eventually becomes clear that he likes and respects his team.)
Buttermaker pointedly teaches an Armenian boy to lie to his parents when the boy is worried that they’ll be disappointed in him because the team stinks. “Tell them you won,” he says, explaining that lying is the American way.
This unnecessary remake should have been called Badder News Bears; it’s only real additions to the 30-year-old original come in added sexual content, more profanity, and what feels like a lot of running time. The film took heat back in 1976 for ratings-stretching bad language and content, but at least Matthau and director Michael Ritchie (Fletch, Fletch Lives) delivered a well-told story and an excellent performance. The 2005 version quickly suffers from comparison, sometimes mimicking the original scene-for-scene, but failing to capture its nuance or pacing.
Star Billy Bob Thorton, the father of 10- and 11-year-old boys himself, revealed to kansan.com the motivation behind the added content: “I think the only difference is that now kids see so many things and hear so many things that maybe it will not be quite as shocking to them. I think kids who watch South Park and things like that, it is sort of their sense of humor now.”
I’m not sure all of the parents with kids at the packed screening I attended were expecting South Park-style content. I heard a couple of 7- or 8-year-old girls next to me quizzing each other on the meaning behind one crude moment. On the way out, a moviegoer described checking his ticket during the film to make sure it was PG-13.
It’s too bad in a way, because the message at the end of the film is one kids and parents need to hear: Winning is less important than trying. Giving each other a chance is more important than victory. Losing hurts, but doing better than you thought you could is worth celebrating.
Unfortunately, 30 years later, the Bears still celebrate by cussing out their unexpectedly restrained opponents and spraying (now near-) beer all over each other.