Watching "Everybody Wants Some!!" and "Bad News Bears," Richard Linklater's Baseball Movies
Richard Linklater's latest, "Everybody Wants Some!!" is a baseball movie with almost no baseball in it. It's great, and so nothing like his other baseball effort.
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It makes sense that Richard Linklater played college baseball, if only because his films have so much in common with what people either love or hate about baseball—they're unhurried, sun-washed, discursive, and feature some seriously questionable haircuts. When Linklater draws on his personal experience and affinity for the game, as he did briefly in Dazed And Confused and in its "spiritual successor" Everybody Wants Some!!, a largely baseball-free movie about a college baseball team, the results can be magical.
It's easy to wonder why Linklater hasn't directed more sports movies, at least until you remember that dark period in the mid-2000's, when Linklater was pegged as "the guy that brought you School Of Rock," instead of the understated auteur behind more personal work such as Slacker, Before Sunrise and Waking Life. It was during that period that Linklater made his only explicitly baseball-related baseball movie, which also happens to be his worst film by a considerable distance. For all the things that make Everybody Wants Some!! such a delight to watch, one especially stands out—it's nothing at all like Linklater's 2005 flop-sweaty, ultra-futile remake of The Bad News Bears.
Everybody Wants Some!! satisfactorily gives off the vibe of a good long weekend in 1980, right down to that Presidential election we probably should have paid more attention to. Most of us will never experience legally drinking at the age of 18, at least in these United States, and the vast majority of us will never contemplate the Houston Astros' National League playoff chances post-coitus. For Everybody Wants Some!!'s collection of endearing baseball bros, though, that's not just a part of life, but the majority of it. The film that results is an almost totally white, male, and heterosexual experience, but is also personal and weirdly tender in a uniquely Linklater way; while the film acknowledges that there is life outside the bubble of early 1980's Texas, it revels in that bubble so charmingly, and so happily, as to elicit warm, sentimental nostalgia for a time and place that few in its audience ever actually experienced.
It's hard to discern exactly how much sports a movie has to have in it to be a "sports movie," but if you set the bar above five minutes, Everybody Wants Some!! doesn't quite qualify. There is only one scrimmage near the end of Everybody Wants Some!!, but just about everything in it, from sex to ping pong, is a competition. The players on the Southeast Texas University Cherokees are among the best in the country, but as they're six months away from the nearest game, they're left largely to compete against themselves, not to mention the ticking clock which ultimately claims one of the players in what comes closest to being a dramatic plot twist, and to ripping off the headlines.
The cast of Everybody Wants Some!! is almost uniformly unknown for now, with the possible exception of Wyatt Russell, who is mostly known because his parents starred in freaking Overboard. This works to the film's advantage, much as it did for Dazed And Confused—there is a certain sense of pride when you know that you're seeing the superstar careers of Anthony Rapp, Marissa Ribisi, and Adam Goldberg begin before your eyes. Who knows which of the actors in Linklater's latest movie will reach Rory Cochrane levels of fame, while others settle for merely being the next Ben Affleck or Matthew McConaughey.
Coming off the contact high of good vibes from Everybody Wants Some!!, I decided to see how Linklater would fare with a bigger dose of baseball and a cast of smaller, more profane baseball players. This was a bad choice. Bad News Bears, as opposed to the revered 1976 Michael Ritchie classic The Bad News Bears, is the redheaded stepchild in a cinematic universe that includes a sequel in which Tony fucking Curtis flies half of the team off to Japan and has them meet wrestler Antonio Inoki. Bad News Bears might be a Richard Linklater movie, but The Slugger's Wife was a Hal Ashby movie, and that was an irredeemable piece of shit, too.
There are many reasons why Bad News Bears pales in comparison to the original, with the most obvious being that it's impossible to improve upon perfection. What is most depressing about Bad News Bears—and it is depressing, in that low-grade but legitimate way that all squandered possibility is—is that no one involved seems inclined even to try. Bad News Bears seems to have been greenlit by people who only saw Richard Linklater as the director of School Of Rock, and Billy Bob Thornton as the star of Bad Santa, and plugged them, along with Bad Santa screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, into a studio spreadsheet. There are a lot of talented people involved, but the same can be said of the 1993 New York Mets, and the results here are just as surly and unlovable.
A lot of the problem lies in casting Billy Bob Thornton as Morris Buttermaker, although it's hard to know what more he could have done given that a third of the script is Billy Bob talking back to people we either don't really like or actively hate. This cast is not really reinterpreting The Bad News Bears so much as enacting the Stations of the I Know This Isn't PC But ... Cross, with a few added flourishes and some unnecessary fleshing out and context cues alerting us to the fact that we're in that annus mirabilis of Western culture, 2005. Ten minutes in, we get an Atkins Diet joke, shortly after Morris is amazed by Ahmad's love of (wait for it) Mark McGwire. Other flourishes soil the minimalist glory of The Bad News Bears; the brilliant, batshit conceit of a classical music soundtrack is abandoned, and a strip club sponsors the Bears instead of the wholesome Chico's Bail Bonds.
Bad News Bears also sexualizes Morris Buttermaker in a way that absolutely no one asked for, turning him into a Hooters-lovin' galavant with a harem of buxom glorified extras waiting around to cheer him on. Imagine Walter Matthau working with this material, and shudder. The tone is wildly off throughout the movie, sticking you with unlikeable adults and cardboard cutouts of vulgar children in some perverse Mighty Ducks-esque form of community service. Greg Kinnear bolsters his natural smugness with a touch of self-righteousness in the role of Coach Turner; it doesn't help, but again it seems as if no one involved appreciated what made the part work in the original. What made Vic Morrow's portrayal of the same character so scary is that, while you knew he was a jerk, the revelation of his true, darker self came from a more spontaneous place. It also made his son's "fuck you" moment, where he just lets Engelberg score after Coach Dad hits him, all the more real.
The kids on both the Bears and the Yankees are barely even there, burdened with added hang-ups such as coming from the only non-Kardashian family of Armenian descent in Southern California, and casting a South Asian actor—shorthand for "unathletic stat nerd" in the film's strenuously, predictably edgy universe—as Ogilvie. They add a kid in a wheelchair, but the inclusion of the character, as played by Troy Gentile, of TV's "The Goldbergs," is a net loss for the movie's depiction of the disabled.
All of this effortful offensiveness would have been fine by me if the film was funny, but it isn't. I did not laugh once through its 113 minutes, and found myself exponentially more bummed-out with each scene. Scott Adsit plays an umpire in one scene, which means he has officially been in something more depressing than Season 3 of Moral Orel. Sammi Kane Kraft, who had the unenviable task of playing the Tatum O'Neal role, was killed in an automobile accident in 2012, a genuine tragedy by all measures. The whole thing is just fucking dark, and not in the way it was intended to be.
Perhaps the most egregious of Bad News Bears' crimes is how clearly it scans as a product of the mid-2000's. Had this movie been a reinterpretation and in-the-spirit reinvention along the lines of Creed, it could have been great, or at least enjoyable. Instead it replaces the spirited dirtbaggery of the original with wheelchair jokes, Hooters-girl extras, and non-alcoholic beer. Even in an age of "political correctness" and "I don't know what political correctness actually is but I will assume it's something that offends you and not me and therefore seems very bad," creativity still matters, and there was something creative to be done even with the skeletal remains of Bill Lancaster's original script, which Ficarra and Requa used as a basis. People interested in that could presumably still pull off a quality reboot of The Bad News Bears—but on the other hand, if Richard Linklater couldn't do it, maybe we're better off focusing on reviving the Air Bud franchise.