Thursday, July 21, 2005

Already dependent on remakes this summer — witness “The Longest Yard” and “War of the Worlds” — Paramount seems to throw in the towel with its latest update, the listlessly derivative “Bad News Bears.” (It has dropped definite article, to distinguish it from the prototype.)

The collaborators have expressed nothing but esteem and affection for the original 1976 movie (“The Bad News Bears”), a humorously eccentric crowd-pleaser and cultural conversation piece admirably directed by the late Michael Ritchie. However, their approach to the material is so stale and uninspired that it’s difficult to detect glimmers of enthusiasm.

The director, Richard Linklater, is responsible for two of the most inventive comedies of recent years, “Slacker” and “Waking Life.” He brought a suitably cheerful outlook to his last feature, “The School of Rock,” also a comedy about youngsters who help redeem a disreputable mentor. Yet, a strange torpor clings to almost every frame of Mr. Linklater’s “Bad News Bears,” a bewilderingly feeble effort.

The late Bill Lancaster, who wrote the original movie, shares screen credit with the team that devised “Bad Santa” for Billy Bob Thornton, who inherits the late Walter Matthau’s role as a confirmed cynic shamed into getting serious about his coaching stint with an underdog Little League team. The original screenplay remains so intact that old-timers may notice a predictability problem: The remake plods through so many familiar episodes that one despairs of elements of freshness and surprise.

The new writers have tinkered with some of the vulgarities exchanged by Mr. Thornton’s Morris Buttermaker and the most outspoken team members. The verbal aspect is arguably cruder than before, but not as distinctive. Most of the characters have the same names and speak essentially the same lines while struggling from ineptitude to respectability during the baseball season. Their surroundings, formerly in the Los Angeles suburb of Chatsworth, have shifted to a less photogenic site in the Los Angeles suburb of Encino.

The juveniles in the 1976 film were a delightful mix of familiar and unfamiliar faces. As the most familiar, Tatum O’Neal had an ingenious and flattering role as Amanda, the pitcher recruited by Buttermaker to stabilize the team until it reached an adequate skill level. Her substitute, Sammi Kane Kraft, looks older and obviously finds acting an uphill battle. She is said to be an all-around athlete. Clearly, it worked better to hire a girl with acting experience.

Kelly, the reformed juvenile delinquent who emerges as a flashy, slugging centerfielder, is now embodied by Jeffrey Davies. A prep baseball prospect, he makes a smoother transition to make-believe than Miss Kraft, although he, too, looks a little old for the part.

The serendipitous casting that strengthened the original movie proves a booby trap for the remake, so intent on recycling a vintage success, instead of reinventing it, that all comparisons become unflattering. So this is the new tubby catcher Engelberg, you muse, or the new combative shortstop Tanner? The next thought is how much more satisfying it would be to revisit the first editions. This complaint also applies to Billy Bob Thornton’s disenchanting method of duplicating the shambling genius of Walter Matthau in his prime.


TITLE: “Bad News Bears”

RATING: PG-13 (Systematically profane and vulgar dialogue; fleeting drug and sexual allusions; fleeting violence with facetious overtones)

CREDITS: Directed by Richard Linklater. Screenplay by Bill Lancaster and Glenn Ficara and John Requa, based on Mr. Lancaster’s original 1976 screenplay for “The Bad News Bears.” Cinematography by Rogier Stoffers. Production design by Bruce Curtis. Costume design by Karen Patch. Music by Edward Shearmur, with music supervision by Randall Poster.

RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes



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