Let’s start with questions. Is the legend of the rent way hardcore? What is your favorite scene from School of Rock? Is it when Jack Black teaches Zack the power stance and segues into the hardcore song “The Legend of the Rent“? Or when Black lectures the class about standing up to the man? How about when Black tells Lawrence he’s the bee’s knees? Or when he uses Joan Cusak’s love of Stevie Nicks to win her approval for a field trip? Or the climatic band performance of “Teacher’s Pet“?

TBH there’s no wrong answer because School of Rock is a perfect movie. It’s Jack Black’s best performance, features an incredible cast of kids, and boasts hilarious, eternally-quotable lines. The movie holds up extremely well, and is funny whenever and wherever you watch it. I previously said “The two most memorable movies from my high school years were Napoleon Dynamite and Walk to Remember,” but my omission of School of Rock from this list is unforgivable. I watched that movie with my buddies countless times.

School of Rock came out in 2003 and was directed by Richard Linklater. Two years later, he would make another movie centered on a deadbeat dude who mentors an all-star kid cast in Bad News Bears. A remake of a classic 1976 baseball movie, Linklater’s Bears follows an alcoholic, ex-baseball player (Billy Bob Thornton) as he’s recruited to coach a little league team of nerdy, feisty kids with no athletic talent. But Linklater had more (or less?) ambitious plans for Bears, as he wanted to blend the School of Rock template with the crudeness of Thornton’s Bad Santa. The result is a crude, though funny, inferior movie. I will use the template established by the better movie (Rock) to review the poorer one (Bears).

Bad News Bears (2005)

As far as baseball movies go, Bears’ plot is formulaic. A rich mom (Marcia Gay Harden) with a non-athletic son pressures the little league association to add a team. She recruits an ex-ballplayer working as an exterminator (Thornton) to coach a motley crew of dweeby boys (= the Bears). Thornton’s in it for the paycheck, and watches as his team gets trounced in game one. The kids want to quit, but Thornton’s revitalized by goading from opposing coach Greg Kinnear. Cue montage of the kids learning to play and losing less-badly. Thornton recruits a mad talented girl and the team starts to win. They eventually make the championship. The only thing missing from a by-the-book sports movie is an off-field, redemptive romance for Thornton.

Bad News Bears is essentially a combination of The Benchwarmers and The Sandlot. The movie even spoofs the famous pool and flyball scenes of Sandlot. What sets Bears apart (or not) is its cruder humor, which is largely carried by its characters. This review will differ from my usual template, as I talk characters and assign them pre-determined School of Rock roles.

Marcia Gay Harden fully embraces being “The Man,” and the worst part of Bad News Bears.
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

The Man: Marcia Gay Harden v. Joan Cusack

Just as Cusack recruits Black to teach kids (even if she thinks he’s someone else), Marcia recruits Thornton. As school principal, Cusack is also “The Man,” i.e. the oppressive parts of society always putting you down. At first, Marcia seems to be fighting “The Man.” She’s sued the little league association for keeping her son out, and is fighting the good fight with overly aggressive tactics. But by the movie’s end, Marcia becomes “The Man.” Outraged that Thornton puts her son in to pitch in the championship game (he’s terrible, but loves pitching), it’s clear she cares more about her son becoming a winner than just having fun.

Like “The Man,” Marcia is also the worst part of this movie. She’s terribly miscast, and decidedly unfunny in all her scenes. In an unnecessary one-off scene, she has sex with Thornton because why not? You should watch Miller’s Crossing to see how awesome she can be. (Or visit her website to buy her memoir and read about how ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, shaped her life).

Da Bears. Aka the kids that make up the Bad News Bears.
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

The Kids

Like School of Rock, Bad News Bears sports a great cast of kids. Every stereotype of dweeby kid is represented on the Bears. From left in the picture above, you have chubs, stick-thin booger-picker appropriately named Lupus (think Sandlot’s Smalls), stats nerd, short-fuse bully, Marcia’s son, wheels, Ahmad who’s favorite player is Mark McGwire and not Ken Griffey Junior, and the Agilar twins. Without a doubt, stats nerd Ahman Johal (third from left) is my favorite kid. He looks up Coach Thornton’s career ERA on baseballstats.org (36 in 2/3 of an inning, which isn’t statistically possible), keeps track of his own batting average, and blurts statistics at the most unnatural times. (So basically he’s me).

My second favorite is short-fuse bully Timmy Deters (center, with camo shorts). He’s always running his mouth, making fun of teammates, and picking fights. (So basically he’s the firecracker I wish I was as a kid). Timmy’s funniest moment of ‘playing dirty,’ was when he throws his glove at and trips opponents while getting blown out in the Bears’ first game.

The Bears add a “Benny the Jet” in Sammi Kane Kraft (pictured below), who becomes the team’s ace pitcher. It’s always wonderful to see boys get owned by a girl in sports movies, and–in a fun variation of the parent-child dynamic–Kraft is the daughter of Thornton’s ex-lover. The two establish a good back-and-forth dynamic, but don’t pause too long to wonder why Kraft doesn’t consider other father figure options.

Getting owned by a girl should be an essential part of every sports movie.
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures.

The Deadbeat Teacher: Billy Bob Thornton vs Jack Black

Even as Jack Black was doing actively educational damage to his students, he had charm in spades and won the viewer’s sympathy. At first, he was simply trying to pay his rent and stick it to the band who stuck it to him. As the movie progressed, he discovered his class’ true musical talents. And by “Teacher’s Pet,” he’d become more humble and proud of his students.

In comparison, Thornton’s character garners no sympathy. His redemptive arc is little more than transitioning from not caring to caring about kids, all the while remaining a crass human being. By movie’s end, he’s still an alcoholic rodent exterminator with blatant disrespect for everyone.

Thornton’s crudeness is hilarious at times. The visual gag of emptying his cooler full of dead rodents to fill with drinks for the team is aces. His role call at the first practice is uncomfortably hilarious, littered with ignorant racist comments. The reveal that Thornton got a Gentlemen’s club as the team’s sponsor is quite funny. And his constant mockery of Greg Kinnear is wonderful. In sum, Thornton’s crudeness provides laughs, but (like Marcia Gay Harden) I prefer his roles in Coen Brother productions like The Man Who Wasn’t There and Intolerable Cruelty.

Kinnear’s vain, insecure, car salesman-by-day-little-league-coach-also-by-day is the best part of the movie. Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

The Rival: Greg Kinnear vs No Vacancy

No Vacancy sucks because No Vacancy sucks. Seriously, School of Rock was making fun of emo music ICYMI. In contrast, Greg Kinnear rules because Coach Kinnear sucks. Instead of his humble, family-man role as coach in Invincible, Kinnear in Bears is a vain, insecure coach–aka the kind of coach he was meant to be. One reviewer says “Kinnear, who’s always best when playing an asshole” is the best part of the movie. He’s not wrong.

Coach Kinnear is the coach who boasts about his on-field accomplishments to mask deficiencies everywhere else. Aka, “a tool.” His little league team is the Yankees, copping the name of America’s most hated team. Of course, they’re the reigning champs and current title favorites. Of course, Kinnear schmoozes with the kids’ parents at fancy dinners. Of course, Kinnear’s a walking endorsement for under armor in short shorts. Of course, he drives his son hard as the team’s pitcher. Of course, he’s a car salesman at Chevy Valley Subaru, “quality you can drive.”

As Kinnear does best, his character unravels as his insecurities bubble to the surface throughout the movie. At first, he tries to intimidate Thornton with jives at his team’s quality and weirdly long handshakes. Thornton couldn’t care less, and plays it off with jives at Kinnear’s shorts (“You know, your face is turning a little red…what it might be is those gym shorts might be a little tight for you. Looks like you’re smuggling grapes down there.”) Thornton’s nonchalance to Kinnear’s repeated putdowns gets to Kinnear, and he’s soon wearing long baseball pants.

Kinnear & Thornton’s heated rivalry comes to a glorious head in an epic championship game between their teams. First, there’s an on-field fight between the two with Kinnear repeatedly yelling “crybaby.” Just watch.

Kinnear completes is fall from grace later in the game, when he comes out to yell at his son for hitting a batter. Kinnear’s anger escalates to the point of shoving his son to the ground, and the crowd is a gasp. His wife takes his son from the game, and maybe from his life. Kinnear plays this scene so well, and it’s a shame I can’t find it online.

Summary

  • Two years after making School of Rock, Richard Linklater fused the movie’s template with the crudeness of Bad Santa to remake Bad News Bears. The movie lacks charm and is mostly forgettable, but is often hilarious.
  • Marcia Gay Harden is no Joan Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton is no Jack Black, but Greg Kinnear is a far better rival than No Vacancy.
  • Kinnear’s roles as vain, insecure, angry characters are, as they say at Chevy Valley Subaru, “quality you can drive.” His turn in Bad News Bears is no exception, and he’s the best part of the movie.
The not-so-rare case where Greg’s acting outshines a mediocre movie.
  • Next-up:  Murder of a Cat looks terribly delightful, and is free to watch on Amazon Prime. Here’s the trailer.

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