Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) is a washed up ex-baseball player, an alcoholic who now cleans pools for a living. He finds the opportunity to make extra money by coaching the Bears, a children's baseball team, but doesn't have much faith in them when he sees what a bunch of misfits they are. On his first day, all he cares about is the money, especially when the kids accidentally break the windscreen of his car, but after a week of training, he warms to them, even though they're pretty much hopeless...
We all know how sports movies go, don't we? Get a collection of no-hopers and put them through an extensive regime, with the result that they win out against the odds and seize victory from the jaws of defeat. The Bad News Bears, written by Bill Lancaster, isn't qute as predictable as it initially appears, however, although it sticks pretty closely to the formula for the most part. In sports movies, it's sometimes better to enjoy the journey to that final game than to relish the result at the end, which is the case here.
After their first game, which the Bears lose pathetically, the kids are humiliated - it may not have mattered much to Buttermaker, but to the team it was a big deal. This gives Buttermaker second thoughts about simply turning up for the cash, and gradually success matters as much to him as to the Bears. And yet, even with their ambition, they're still hopeless, so Buttermaker tries to persuade Amanda (Tatum O'Neal), a talented eleven-year-old he trained a couple of years before while romancing her mother, to join the team.
Amanda is reluctant, more content to sell maps to the stars' homes for tourists, but she is inevitably won over. The kids themselves are not a bunch of cute poppets by any means, they are more authentic than that; the obnoxious one who eats too much, the obnoxious one who fires off insults to everyone in earshot, or the obnoxious one who picks his nose and eats it are just a few of the more memorable players. Amanda sees Buttermaker as a father figure, just as he grows to feel paternal towards the team, but his own failure as a baseball player makes him bitter, and he pushes the kids away.
Although it's not overemphasised, by the last ball game we see that the children's leagues are as much about the adults as they are the kids. It's the parents who push their kids to shine at the national sport, and it's a personal disaster if they fail, as the Bears keep threatening to do. There's a telling scene where the coach of the opposing team (Vic Morrow) takes out his frustrations on his own son, knocking him to the ground when he messes up.
But while there's a serious side, this is still a character comedy, with smart lines ("C'mon, fellas, Rome wasn't built in a day!", "Yeah, it took several hundred years!") and an excellent performance from Matthau as the world-weary, over the hill coach who discovers renewed purpose in life. It's just that the "couldn't give a shit" humour is in conflict with the players' drive to confound everyone's expectations and win, looking as if the film is in two minds about the competitive culture. Music by Jerry Fielding, which adapts dramatic classical pieces to as an effective comment on the action. Followed by two sequels and a TV series.
American director, from television, whose films of the 1970s showed an interesting, sardonic take on America. After sour skiing drama Downhill Racer, he had an unhappy experience on the bizarre Prime Cut before a run of acclaimed movies: political satire The Candidate, the excellent Smile, coarse comedy The Bad News Bears, and another sporting comedy Semi-Tough.