Billy Bob Thornton is the best weapon against cute that a kid baseball movie ever had. Like Bill Murray, Thornton is allergic to uplift. As Morris Buttermaker, the boozing pussy-hound coach of the Bears — a losing team of California misfits — Thornton cuts the brats no slack. “You look like the last shit I took,” he drawls. elcome to Bad Santa baseball with Santa’s writing elves Glenn Ficarra and John Requa reteaming with Thornton to rock the PG-13 rating. In terms of drugs, the film tones down the 1976 original. Unlike Walter Matthau, who created the role of the badass coach, Thornton doesn’t tell kids to “grab a toke.” But the mischief he does make adds up to wild, rowdy fun.
Baseball is a dictatorship, and I’m Hitler,” says the coach, who spikes his beer with hard stuff, passes out on the field and hustles the Bo-Peep strip club to supply the team’s jerseys. “It’s a business, they pay taxes,” he tells the lawyer (Marcia Gay Harden) who stuck him, a man who once pitched an inning in the majors, with coaching kids (one in a wheelchair) whom he calls “bronze medalists in the Special Olympics.”
The child actors run the gamut, from the Indian nerd who checks stats on his laptop to the black rebel who idolizes Mark McGwire. As he did in The School of Rock, director Richard Linklater lets his indie roots show by keeping the kids decidedly unslick. Hiring non-actors Jeffrey Davies as the hitter and Sammi Kane Kraft as the pitcher originally played by Tatum O’Neal is a risk that pays off. They play ball like pros. Whenever the script lets cliches bleed in, like the rival team’s asshole coach dad (Greg Kinnear), the day is saved by the authenticity and love that Linklater brings to the game.
America may bitch to hear Buttermaker spread his potty-mouth philosophy. “Nonalcoholic beer?” asks a baby Bear when the coach offers a swig. “What’s the point?” There is none. And there would be no point to a muzzled Thornton. Even when the movie swings and misses like “Helen Keller at a pinata party” (the coach’s words), Thornton whacks the laughs out of the park without breaking a sweat. In this game, he’s the undisputed MVP.