The best reason to see Richard Linklater’s wholly unnecessary but highly enjoyable remake of The Bad News Bears (Paramount) is Billy Bob Thornton, who’s doing a PG-13 version of his Bad Santa. Thornton embodies the kind of flamboyantly dissolute but acidly intelligent Southern layabout who makes sloth, alcoholism, and self-abuse alarmingly attractive. A former Major League baseball player tossed out of the game for cold-cocking an umpire and forced to take a coaching job for the money, he pulls up to his first Little League game, dumps out part of his nonalcoholic beer, and tops it up with bourbon. He has strange, radioactive yellow hair and tattoos, and his T-shirt reads, “She looked good last night.” In the Michael Ritchie original, Walter Matthau was a delightful, rumpled presence, but you knew that he was cuddly underneath. Thornton has no heart of gold: It’s only when his self-disgust becomes too oppressive that he changes his ways.
Otherwise, the movie is beat-for-beat the same as Ritchie’s, with the addition of a kid in a wheelchair, a black kid who worships Mark McGwire, etc. Linklater has become an excellent studio craftsman, but there’s something missing. When the camera pulls back at the end of the original to show the American flag fluttering over the baseball field, the image—and the scruffy defiance of the Bad News Bears—meant something in the context of a counterculture in its death throes. Here it’s a non-sequitur, a throwaway.
In my review of The Aristocrats, I challenge Penn Jillette’s assertion that it’s always “the singer, not the song” that determines a work of art’s meaning. Maybe we should split the difference, because sometimes the singer changes everything. A fascinating exercise would be to watch, back to back, James Toback’s Fingers and Jacques Audiard’s smashing French remake The Beat That My Heart Skipped (Wellspring Media). Toback’s 1977 film—about a once-promising pianist (Harvey Keitel), now working as a thuggish debt collector for his dad—is austere, arty, and grimly fatalistic. White walls, plaintive piano music: You know the drill. It’s about the death of a man’s creative spirit—and his soul. Audiard’s take, on the other hand, is fevered, immediate, and hopeful—a story of a man recovering his soul. The most intense and compelling sections of The Beat are almost word for word from Fingers (albeit translated into French), but this beat changes everything. Good for Audiard—and for Toback for giving his blessing…. 11:00 a.m. P.T.