Plot: A local little league baseball team is in dire need of a coach, but the Bears play in a competitive field and the roster is problematic, to be kind. As no other options present themselves, a washed up former professional is brought in, a beer drinking, foul tempered man named Buttermaker (Walter Matthau). He arrives at the first practice drunk and is so dismayed by the misfits that make up the team that he puts in almost no effort, which results in a disastrous first game. But when the players threaten to walk out on him, he starts to take the job more seriously and despite his best efforts, even connects with the kids a little. He even brings in a new pitcher (Tatum O’Neal) that is good enough to give the team some hope, but can Buttermaker and the Bears prove they belong on the diamond?
Entertainment Value: The “sports underdog” genre is one of the most crowded in all of cinema, but the premise is one audiences seem to love and there are some true gems buried in all filler movies. One of those gems is The Bad News Bears, a comedy with dark touches and a real sense of heart, not to mention a fantastic lead performance from Walter Matthau that anchors the entire movie. The core narrative of unlikely underdogs making a run at success is beyond well worn, but where this film succeeds is focusing on characters, not the narrative. The emphasis is on the relationships and how they evolve, which helps avoid the stale texture of the genre, but also lets us invest in the characters and care what happens. I especially appreciate the scenes between Buttermaker and Amanda, as they feel grounded and believable, while helping humanize Buttermaker and that’s a crucial element here. The movie is also unafraid to present an unvarnished approach to the characters and little league environment, which again helps it seem more believable, rather than an idealized, feel good experience. I think The Bad News Bears is a great movie and proves if you put faith in your characters, even a tired premise can succeed.
As I mentioned above, this movie doesn’t take a “cute” approach to the little league world, so these kids aren’t the kind you’d normally find in a film about underdog child athletes. The kids are diverse and are shown in frequent conflict, over all kinds of issues large and small, much like kids do in real life. The personalities are dialed up of course, but I think audiences appreciated the more grounded, unpredictable nature of the kids in this one. The child actors turn in colorful, memorable efforts and have great chemistry with Matthau, another important part of the movie. Matthau is simply fantastic here and really nails the role, able to convey both the gruffness of the role and the more sensitive side with ease. He also steers clear of the usual tropes coach characters fall into, thanks in part the great character development of the material. If you’re even a slight fan of Matthau’s work, his role as Buttermaker is one you simply have to see, it is a well performed and fun turn. The cast also includes Tatum O’Neal in a terrific effort, while Jackie Earle Haley and Vic Morrow also have prominent roles. I always have a good time with The Bad News Bears, as it delivers entertainment and effective sentiment, which is no simple task.