Billy Bob Thornton steps into the shoes of the late Walter Matthau for Richard Linklater's chucklesome remake of 70s baseball comedy Bad News Bears. He's the sporting has-been who's bribed to coach a ragtag team of pintsized players although he'd rather swig a beer than swing a bat. No doubt it's a clichéd yarn, but Thornton raises the game with a slouchy charm that recalls his wicked turn in Bad Santa.
Among the line-up of misfits is an undersized boy with an anger management problem (Timmy Deters), a fat kid with a mouth to fit (Brandon Craggs) and a bitter paraplegic (Troy Gentile). After much persuasion, Thornton's Coach Buttermaker also signs up his daughter (Sammi Kane Kraft) who still hasn't forgiven him for ditching their family. It's clear where all this is headed, but Thornton livens up proceedings with a barrage of verbal curveballs. "You guys swing like Hellen Keller at a piñata party," is an example of Buttermaker on a good day.
"YOU CAN'T HELP BUT LOVE THORNTON"
Screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Bad Santa) keep the humour within playable bounds, but it's Thornton's flat delivery and aura of painful self-awareness that elicits sympathy. You simply can't help but love Buttermaker even when he gets liquored up and assaults the children with badly aimed balls! Disappointingly, this spirit of irreverence gets lost in sporting convention towards the end of the film (the slow-motion strike, the miracle catch, the surprise homerun etc) all of which puts it in a different league to Linklater's School Of Rock. Even so, Bad News Bears is a pleasant surprise out of leftfield.