Finding their inner winner

Caps off to 'Bad News Bears,' despite its off-color language

I've looked forward to "Bad News Bears," about a burned-out ballplayer who finally grows up while coaching a kids' baseball team, for three reasons.

One is that Richard Linklater directed it. He's built his reputation with offbeat treats like "Waking Life" and "Before Sunrise," but when he decides it's time to sustain his career by scoring a box-office hit, he can do it amazingly well, as with "The School of Rock" two years ago.

Another is that it stars Billy Bob Thornton in his grungy-slacker-with-a-decent-heart mode, which gave "Bad Santa" much of its dark-comedy appeal.

The third is that it's a remake of "The Bad News Bears," a minor 1976 classic with Walter Matthau in the lead.

My review of the 1976 original brought an avalanche of mail from people offended by the screenplay's foul language, which they found awfully out of place in a movie with such a cute title and so many kids in the cast. I'd gone out of my way to warn about this in my article. But plenty of readers saw the picture anyway, and lost no time letting me know how angry they were.

To make sure we're all in the same ballpark this time, I'll be extra clear. The remake's four-letter language strains the PG-13 rating to its breaking point, in scene after scene, from the first inning to the last. Throw in the drinking angle, the "girlie" gags, and the jokes about an outfielder in a wheelchair, and you wonder if the ratings committee slept through this one.

That said, "Bad News Bears" should find a large summer audience of older teens and young adults. And that's to the good if they see the movie's real message.

The coach is certainly an offensive goofball, and the Bears are certainly a pack of hard-to-handle whippersnappers. But the picture's point is that surfaces don't tell the whole story about people, about teams, or about anything. The main character is a bona-fide loser - his claim to fame is that he once pitched two-thirds of an inning in the majors - but even he becomes a self-made good guy in the end, as do the seeming wimps and nerds who play for him.

That's a lesson worth heeding - if you can stomach the gross-out jokes surrounding it.

Rated PG-13; contains drinking and loads of foul language.

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