Review: The Bad News Bears (1976)

>> Tuesday, May 19, 2009

USA/C-102m./Dir: Michael Ritchie/Wr: Bill Lancaster/Cast: Walter Matthau (Coach Morris Buttermaker), Tatum O’Neal (Amanda Whurlitzer), Chris Barnes (Tanner Boyle), Vic Morrow (Coach Roy Truner), Jackie Earle Haley (Kelly Leak), Joyce Van Patton (Cleveland), Gary Lee Cavagnaro (Engelberg), Erin Blunt (Ahmad Abdul Rahim), Quinn Smith (Timmy Lupus)

The original 1976 version of The Bad News Bears is one of the most beloved family films of all time, despite the fact that it features alcoholism, vulgar and racist language, under-age smoking and drinking, and borderline physical and emotional abuse. Let just say, Mary Poppins it ain’t. What it is instead is a well-drawn, realistic slice-of-life that will have you rooting for the underdog.

Walter Matthau stars as Morris Buttermaker, a booze-sodden, ex-minor league ball player who agrees to take beer money in exchange for coaching a rag-tag group of no-talent little leaguers. The kids learn little initially from their new coach, except how to pass out after consuming copious quantities of martinis and Miller Beer. Consequently, the team suffers an ignoble slaughter during their first game. Faced with possibly disbanding the team, Buttermaker decides to recruit a couple of ringers, beginning with the daughter of an ex-girlfriend (Tatum O’Neal), who possesses a wicked pitching arm. The new-and-improved Bears enjoy a string of successes, but fun takes a backset to the quest for victory.

Michael Ritchie’s film succeeds largely because it sidesteps most of the sentimentalism and clichés that usually accompany underdog sports stories; and unlike most family films made today, it trusts in the intelligence of its audience. The script by Bill Lancaster (Burt’s son) is smart and doesn’t feel that it has to spell everything out. For example, during the final game, when Buttermaker realizes he is taking the championship way too seriously, there is no apology or explanatory speech. The change of heart simply plays out on Matthau’s face.

The performances by the child cast are nearly as good as those of Matthau, Morrow, and the other professional actors; and the use of overlapping dialogue (which must have required a lot of rehearsal time with the kids) gives the scenes a naturalist feel. While Tatum O’Neal and Jackie Earl Haley are usually singled out amongst the child actors (and they are quite good), the real standout is Chris Barnes as Tanner Boyle, a tough-talking pipsqueak who refers to the coach as an “alky crud” and uses racial slurs for his fellow players. Barnes is totally believable as an insecure kid trying to cover his lack of confidence by acting out.

The Bad News Bears has a raw and realistic feel that roots the film strongly in the Seventies alongside the work of filmmakers like Robert Altman and Hal Ashby. At the same time, the story is timeless. Like a classic cocktail, this concoction will be enjoyed for generations to come.

Drinks Consumed--Cheap beer of all kinds, Jim Beam bourbon, and martinis (gin)

Intoxicating Effects--Sneaking sips, staggering, and passing out

Potent Quotables--OFFSCREEN BEAR TEAMMATE (concerning the passed out Buttermaker): What do we do?
ENGELBERG: Nothing. He ain’t any good to us sober either.
REGI TOWER: Opening day’s tomorrow. We don’t know what the batting order is. We don’t even have our positions set or anything.
TANNER: All we got is a cruddy alky for a manager!

Video Availability--The Bad News Bears is available as a standalone DVD or packaged with its sequels as Bad News Bears Triple Play 3-Pack (Paramount).

Similarly Sauced Cinema--The Bad News Bears inspired two sequels without the boozy Buttermaker; and Billy Bob Thornton put his spin on the role of Buttermaker in a pretty good 2005 remake.



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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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