27 December 2007

Bad News Bears

It's generally great fun to watch an old movie and its modern remake, but this is a particularly intriguing case because so much of the humor depends upon political incorrectness, which means that the films are fascinating glimpses into particular historical moments.

The story is pretty basic - a deadbeat guy gets hired to coach a little league team composed of hopeless misfits. Of course the underdogs become the heroes, though both films engage in a kind of balancing act between being heartwarming and being pure sap. Both end up a bit too far into sap territory for my taste, but then, I'm a cold-hearted jerk who hates to see anybody happy. Heh heh.

What's also kind of fascinating, to me, is how incredibly awkward both films are. The stories are clunky and abrupt, and generally not too concerned about cutting straight to the interesting parts or having random scenes that are purely there for amusement. In the remake, this leads to a ridiculously long segment that might as well be a music video, but what the hell, watching Billy Bob Thornton accidentally crowd-surf a skater punk show is funny, right?

What's also kind of neat about the movies is that they're both keenly aware of the fact that having an adorable angel-faced child swear like a sailor is at once hilarious and touching - it's the sleazy version of hallmark, and it totally works. You get the warm fuzzies of adorable kids combined with the cynicism of profanity. I'd rather watch a kid mix the perfect cocktail than play with a puppy any day.

Then there's the intriguing aspect of the kids casually issuing forth horrifically politically incorrect dictums. Of course it's funny. But what kind of laughter is it? As per usual, the question comes up - is the film critiquing this worldview or just laughing at it? Are we laughing because we're uncomfortable, or because we're being given a context where it's acceptable to find racism amusing? I suppose in this respect, the contrast between the original and the remake is comforting, in a sense, because one sees how certain forms of discrimination just aren't in vogue anymore. The contemporary viewer could easily miss the humor of the Jewish kid on the team, because our culture isn't really that anti-Semitic anymore. It's kind of curious, too, how easily one can slot in the immigrant Indian kid for that role and keep many of the same jokes - ethnic caricatures are surprisingly interchangeable. Likewise, it's kind of interesting, the way the remake handles the jokes about the black kid on the team - now they serve more as a commentary on the ridiculous racial assumptions of the coach, and, perhaps, a subtle dig at the earlier film ("What do you mean, Mark McGwire is your favorite player? But he's not black!").

Also interesting is the way the character of the coach has changed, ie, the differences in what constitutes a sleazebag then and now. Instead of being a pool-cleaner, he does pest control. The team sponsor is a strip club, not a bail bonds company. Both drink a lot, but now we have the added lasciviousness of the coach who is sleeping with the players' mothers. Makes you think, because I suspect the film would have a much chillier reception if being of the lower classes was all it took to be scene as scum, these days.

But ultimately, are these good movies? Well, no, not really. Amusing, sure, but as I suppose is clear from what I've written, ultimately far more rewarding for the cultural commentary than the narrative pleasure. The cheap laughs do outweigh the gag-inducing cheesiness, but not by much. Still, not a bad way to spend an evening.

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