Movies: Bad News Bears – Foul Ball

Original Publication: Newsweek – April 12, 1976

The Bad News Bears is easy to root for. It’s a smart-ass kids’ movie with grown-up views that would make the Hardy Boys blush, and on several levels it has all the elements of a solid hit. The script deals enjoyably and thoughtfully – althought erratically – with various attitudes towards winning and losing.  The kids who play the Bears – an inept, racially mixed southern California sandlot baseball team – are terrifically appealling. Walter Matthau, with a face like an old catcher’s mitt, stars as an alcoholic minor-league has-been who cleans swimming pools for a living and collects money under the table to coach the hapless Bears. And the ace on the mound who helps save the team is none other than Tatum O’Neal. But despite all its home-run potential, “Bad News Bears” is a long fly ball that finally drifts foul.

There’s trouble early on when the sound track suddenly bursts forth with selections from Bizet’s “Carmen.” Watching suburban San Fernando Valley kids field hits to the “Toreador” song is like having taco sauce poured into your milkshake – it’s jolting and it causes indigestion. Director Michael Ritchie used a similar offbeat semidocumentary style to hilarious effect in his last film, “Smile.” With his team – one fat kid, one sadist, one masochist, one intellectual, one junior Muslim and two chicanos, plus rummy-eyed Matthau and pushy parents – he gets plenty of laughs in “Bears” too.  But he also creates plenty of turn-offs.

Ritchie and screenwriter Bill Lancaster think crudity is cute. The Bears regularly curse out Matthau in the foulest of unfunny language. In one loathsome scene Tatum is sent out to recruit the local juvenile delinquent, who’s a crack hitter.  She challenges him to a penny-arcade game on the terms that if she wins he plays for the Bears. “What if I win?” he asks. “Name it,” Tatum replies. This is Tatum O’Neal’s first film appearance since she won an Oscar for her performance in “Paper Moon” three years ago, and she displays few of the precocious acting skills that Peter Bogdanovich developed then.  Her pitching looks more impressive than her attempts at characterization, and her part is not really the star role her billing suggests.

In the end, the movie’s point is just too pat: the kids just want to play ball, the coaches just want to win; the grownups are villians. When everyone has finally learned it’s not whether you win or lose, etc., Matthau hands each Bear a beer. It’s the final uneasy moment in a film that doesn’t know how to let kids act their age.

This article is typed from the original material.  Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.