by Dana Polan
Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 9-10
Michael Ritchie’s films are variations on a single and important theme: how the competitiveness and hustle of contemporary U.S. life corrupts principles. In SMILE, Ritchie’s film about beauty pageants in the United States, one of the young contestants, Miss Antelope Valley, begins to question the relevance of expensive beauty contests. Her roommate defends the pageant: “Boys get money for making touchdowns. Why shouldn't girls get money for being cute?” Miss Antelope Valley reflects, “But maybe boys shouldn't get money for playing football.” THE BAD NEWS BEARS, Ritchie’s newest film, amplifies this point about the degradation sports suffer when they become as industry. The film indicts the American dream, and the detours that dreams and principles take in a world of profit-oriented culture where the only form human relations can adopt in one shaped by the marketplace.
Hollywood films don't usually take the guiding forces behind U.S. life as their target. Therefore, when a director like Ritchie consistently challenges dominating influences is U.S. life, his or her work demands attention. THE BAD NEWS BEARS is Ritchie’s most carefully worked out critique of U.S. society. Working within Hollywood and the framework of Hollywood narrative, Ritchie has given THE BAD NEWS BEADS broad-based audience appeal, but, at the same time, he has not compromised his intentions: to initiate a critique of the evils of the world in which most of his audience lives. This mixture of entertainment and biting condemnation makes THE BAD NEWS BEARS an interesting film to discuss.
To many people who have not seen it, though, the film may appear to be go more them a trifle, one more bit of nonsense from the Hollywood factory. Moreover, this impression seems confirmed by the cutesy Mort Drucker drawings used in the film’s advertising campaign, and by the presence of lovable Tatum O'Neal and Walter Matthau the cast. To many, THE BAD NEWS SEARS would seem to be a children’s film in the most unappealing sense: syrupy and sugary and soft at its center.
But THE BAD NEWS BEARS is far from soft at its center. The film deals not just with children but with what happens to children in a world based on gain and push. Progressively, Ritchie’s films have come more and more to deal with innocents altered by the profit-eaters around them and by the structures of living these profit-makers have erected as the American dream. THE BAD NEWS BEARS in the logical culmination of this concern with the fate of innocence. It focuses on children as the most susceptible victims of U.S. life. Most of the North Valley Bears are not yet in their teens, and they are already jaded - members of a lost generation forced to be old before their time, and not really meeting that demand.
THE BAD NEWS BEARS shows us children who are already seeing psychiatrists, who are coarse and obscene, and who have begun to surrender their identities to the values of the persuaders around them. The adults in the film cling to their stifling values of competition. They have either ignored or become ignorant of the problems of the youth they have dome so much to shape. In a revealing scene, the team’s pitcher, Amanda (O'Neal), informs manager Buttermaker (Matthau) that a twelve-year old friend of hers is already on the pill. The man she idolizes can only answer, “Don't ever say that word to me again.” The film is careful to claim that children aren't inherently lost; they have been misguided. They need both teachers and parents, and Buttermaker, who could be both, is neither.
Yet THE BAD NEWS BEARS, as one more moment in Ritchie’s continuing investigation, is not about anything as socially limited as the generation gap. Rather, its concern is with the contradiction between the values imposed on life by the U.S. system, and the values of honesty and open human interrelation. It is important to Ritchie’s conception that baseball serve primarily as a metaphor in the film. Although the corruption of the children in THE BAD HEWS BEARS began before the movie’s opening, the film clearly shows that there are moments when temporary escape might be possible. In the film’s most dramatically satisfying moment, Lopez, the team’s chromic incompetent, finally catches a pop fly and the team goes wild with joy. The moment celebrates the possibilities of personal accomplishment, of achievement outside the confines of the usual social patterns.
In fact, Ritchie’s films applaud most those moments when people can simply enjoy something, and not have the corrupted values of others distort that enjoyment: the pure thrill of skiing in DOWNHILL RACER, of flute playing in SMILE, of ball playing in THE BAD NEWS BEARS. And certainly it is this aspect of his films which audiences most enjoy. The thrill and excitement felt by the films’ participants are shared by the audience.
Yet Ritchie has little optimism about the possibilities of relief from the contradictions of U.S. life. Escape can only be momentary, rebellion can only be isolated and extremely limited in scope. Furthermore, the forces of corruption always stand ready to co-opt all dissidence, Ritchie’s most positive heroes are either partial sell-outs or ineffectual rebels at best. The films don't really propose answers; they are more concerned with demonstrating the enormity of the problem.
Through precise attention to detail, Ritchie shows the interconnectedness of various aspects of U.S. life. By this, he emphasizes the many holds mass culture has over its inhabitants. To underscore the omnipresence of mess culture, Ritchie sets many of his scenes in Jack-in-the-Boxes, Pizza Huts, and McDonalds. Such details work to clarify the extent of contemporary forms of domination over everyday life.
THE BAD NEWS BEARS is less about baseball then about the United States in which baseball is played. Therefore, the film ends in pessimism; whatever positive advances the characters have undergone are inconsequential within the enormity of the world which engulfs them. If characters like Buttermaker finally begin to fight against deceit, they do so only within the limits of the game of baseball. They never go beyond those limits to challenge the world which corrupts activities like baseball. These characters are barely able to hold onto their dignity, and Ritchie suggests that this is not enough. The Bears finally play a clean (or semi-clean) game of ball, but when they lose, they quickly fall back into vicious and closed-minded jealousy. Tanner, the team’s overambitious battler, for example, tells the victors to take their trophy and “shove it up their ass.” Earlier in the film, when the Little League Commission tries to close down the North Valley Bears, Buttermaker asks his team if they want to quit. “Hell, no,” Tanner declares, “I wanna play ball.” The important lesson in THE BAD NEWS BEARS is that we will never be able to just play ball: baseball, all sports, exist in a certain social context. We can't understand or appreciate the one and not the other.