The main joke in “Bad News Bears” is that adults and children swearing at each other is funny. While I concede that it is, or at least that it can be, this movie has no idea how to go about it. Everyone’s swearing randomly, with no sense of timing or creativity. We’re supposed to laugh because of the shock value, but that wears off after about five minutes, and then there are still 106 minutes left.
It seems like a good idea: Billy Bob Thornton, fresh from his “Bad Santa” tour de force, playing the Walter Matthau role in a remake of the 1976 kid comedy about a loser Little League team. Richard Linklater (“School of Rock”) is directing, and the writers? Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, of “Bad Santa.”
The problem is that “Bad News Bears” is constrained by the limits of the PG-13 rating, while “Bad Santa” reveled in — and benefited from — its R status. Frankly, “Bad Santa” could be more cleverly filthy, more outrageously vulgar, than “Bad News Bears” can. You can earn laughs through shock value, or you can get a PG-13 rating, but you can’t do both.
Thornton plays Buttermaker, full-time alcoholic and part-time exterminator who, for reasons we are not given (other than that he’s being paid), becomes the coach of a sorry bunch of 12-year-old baseball players. They are the usual variety of sports-movie losers — fat, weird, foreign, nerdy, crippled, and so forth — and, like the movie itself, they don’t seem to be trying very hard. Mostly they just wander around the diamond and call each other names.
But Buttermaker, who played for the Mariners for two-thirds of an inning 20 years ago, slowly sort of turns them around, kind of, and they get a little better, more or less. It’s hard to describe, really. There are only a couple moments of Buttermaker giving the players instructions on how to play the game; his strategy mainly includes recruiting his own estranged pitching-demon daughter (Sammi Kraft) and a motorcycle-riding bad boy (Jeff Davies) to play for the team. To the extent that signing the right players makes a good coach, I guess he’s a good coach.
Anyway, the Bears wind up against the evil Yankees in the playoffs, led by a smarmy coach (Greg Kinnear) who has turned his players into overly competitive jerks. The plot sticks closely to the original — Bill Lancaster, who wrote the first film and had nothing to do with the remake (because he died in 1997), gets a co-writer credit — and that includes the finale, which may not be what you’d expect from a by-the-numbers sports comedy.
Thornton does what he can with his limited resources, swilling beer and behaving with audaciously casual recklessness, but you can feel Bad Santa struggling to get out. None of the kids shows any particular flair for the material, and though Sammi Kraft might be a good pitcher, she’s sure a boring foil for Thornton. And what is Marcia Gay Harden, as the mother of one of the players, even doing here?
It’s not unamusing in its way, with a few laughs here and there and a generally likable demeanor. But considering it’s the fourth underdog sports comedy to be released in two months (after “Kicking & Screaming,” “The Longest Yard” and “Rebound”), and the third ’70s remake in the same span (after “The Longest Yard” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), you have to wonder why they’re even bothering.
C+ (1 hr., 51 min.; )