It’s a Christmas miracle: The legend of Bad Santa has turned Billy Bob Thornton into the drunken, foulmouthed, lecherous lowlife most likely to have a salutary effect on young people who say ”enough already” with the damn wizards and superheroes. In Bad News Bears, director Richard Linklater’s swell, fair-ball remake of the well-loved, anti-PC 1976 sports comedy, Thornton picks up the Beer Can of Unwilling Leadership from Walter Matthau to play Morris Buttermaker, a seedy washout of a onetime ballplayer scrounged up to coach a gaggle of kid-size athletic misfits into becoming a youth baseball team.
Linklater and jovially dyspeptic screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (they wrote Bad Santa — their crud cred is good) know enough to leave Bill Lancaster’s original structure alone. (They also wisely retain the goofy grandeur of a soundtrack driven by Bizet’s opera Carmen — olé.) Instead, the tweaks are subtle and unobtrusive, as Linklater — proven in School of Rock to be a natural leader of yoots — brings transgression up to code for the 21st century of PG-13. New-era losers (the cast is a cheery scrum of relaxed kids, led by genuine whiz pitcher Sammi Kane Kraft in the role created by Tatum O’Neal) now include a rotten kid in a wheelchair. And Greg Kinnear provides bonus smarm as Buttermaker’s nemesis, a coach with a high regard for his own crotch.