director Michael Ritchie
A few years back, I watched The Bad News Bears with my son and a neighbor friend and it was quite a lot of fun. As I’ve been sort of reviewing the films that we’ve watched together, I’ve been catching a couple that my son saw but my daughter missed, ones that I think we could all enjoy revisiting. That, mixed with my son’s fourth season of little league just wrapping up after a “Bad News Bears”-type of season (a tough luck season), it seemed like a good time to bring back the scrappy, unvarnished baseball comedy for the two of them.
Directed by Michael Ritchie (Downhill Racer (1969), The Candidate (1972), among others), the film is a foul-mouthed, un-PC, raucous gem. Walter Matthau is at his W.C. Fields best as the drunken, third rate ballplayer Morris Buttermaker, now hired little league coach and misanthropic pool cleaner, signing on to manage a team of the most unskilled, motley kids in Southern California. It’s pleasantly, shockingly crude but never really crass. From racial epithets that you’d never hear in a kids movie today to cursing from kids and smoking, drinking, driving without a seatbelt, the whole film bears a moxie that you’d never see today. The score, by Jerry Fielding, captures the drudgery and mistakes of the schlubbing team, mixed with the more exuberant strains of success when the team starts playing well, after acquiring the ace pitcher, Amanda (Tatum O’Neal), the daughter or one of Matthau’s ex-girlfriends, and bad boy slugger, Kelly (Jackie Earle Haley).
It’s a classic baseball movie, and unlike a lot of classic baseball movies, it doesn’t have some important speech about the “greatness” of the game. There’s a modicum (or maybe a bit above a modicum) of sentiment with Matthau’s Buttermaker recalling striking out Ted Williams in spring training, the bookish Ogilvie spouting baseball stats like an IBM, or the pep talk Buttermaker offers Ahmad about Hank Aaron. As well as Buttermaker’s relationship with Amanda.
For me, a kid in the 1970’s, the film has flashes of verity and memory (not that I played little league or even liked baseball as a kid). Ritchie captures something with these kids (a great ensemble of characters), set against the landscapes of 1970’s Southern California. There is a nostalgia aspect that is inescapable and very enjoyable.
But more than anything, it’s a heck of a funny and fun film. Both of the kids really liked it. They were a little taken aback by all of the cursing, especially by the kids. Luckily, the epithets spewed by the mouthy Tanner largely went over their heads. That’s some explanation saved on my part. It’s an irony, I suppose, that I say that. The characterization that is embedded in those words from “the mouths of babes” embodies a greater depth to the suggested background of this motley crew, hints of the racism and stereotypes more accepted at the time, rather than the cleanliness but blindness of such a thing omitted. Like much of the film’s more un-PC elements, such as handing out beers to kids, it’s part of the wealth of character of the film, part of what makes it such a classic.