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Retrospective: Richard Linklater Part Three: Baseball, Rock and Roll, and Tainted Meat

My reason for going to see the 2005 remake of The Bad News Bears (did that movie really come out almost nine years ago?) was not because of Richard Linklater. I don’t think I even knew Richard Linklater was making it, although his name was certainly well known to me, by the time this update of a 1976 minor sports classic hit theaters on July 22nd. Nothing about the 2005 Bad News Bears really bothered me, and I guess that’s partially because at the time, I hadn’t seen the original. I liked Billy Bob Thornton (and I still do), and everything about the movie’s story of an alcoholic MLB pitcher coaching a little league team of misfit children pointed towards the kind of thing I would just get around to watching later.

I wound up seeing it on the Friday night it opened. The only reason for that being that it was the only thing my date and I could agree on. In the end, it was a good enough compromise. Expectations were minimal, and I couldn’t imagine feeling the heartbreak of a man cheated, when the credits rolled.

Seeing Richard Linklater’s name in the credits didn’t raise those expectations, per say, but I did suddenly become a little more intrigued. I mentioned to my date that this movie had been directed by the guy responsible for Dazed and Confused. She knew that movie. A lot of people of a certain age know that film. It’s still picking up new admirers all the time. Some of them weren’t even alive when the movie came out.

My date thought that was neat, but I don’t imagine she shared the sudden added interest I now had. And again, that didn’t give me some unexpected wave of enthusiasm, for what was now definitelygoing a milestone in the career of a director whose work I greatly enjoyed. At the most, I tried to remember the last new film of his that I had seen. It felt like it had been a while.

And it was while I sat there in the mostly-empty theater (the film eventually failed to make back its 35-million dollar budget) that I realized I had only seen a portion of his filmography. By 2005, I had seen SlackerDazed and ConfusedSubUrbiaThe Newton Boys, and School of Rock. I had yet to seeBefore SunriseBefore SunsetTape, or Waking Life. Arguably, those last four films are some of his best. Even so, I had thus far only seen his two most significant contributions to the 90’s (Slacker and Dazed and Confused), two movies of uneven quality (SubUrbia and The Newton Boys), and the biggest box office hit of his career, which also happened to be one of the funniest movies of 2004 (School of Rock).

Even with a limited exposure to his work, I was still impressed right then and there by what seemed like a pretty good variety of films. I wanted to share this thought with somebody, but I guessed that my date probably just wanted to watch the goddamn movie. I have to remember that most of the people I watch movies with are not interested in the endless book of tidbits and trivia I’ve written in my brain. And if they do want to hear my thoughts on something about film, it’s usually not while the movie is actually on. Both of those are bad habits I’ve had to work on over the years.

Even with Linklater’s name in my head, I still reacted to The Bad News Bears in pretty much the way I had thought I would. It was a harmless, amiable comedy. Some of it works, and some of it doesn’t. Although it’s a film inferior to the original in several ways (I saw it later), it’s hard for me to imagine someone having to attend counseling, in order to survive the anger left behind in how much they hated it. Most people, I would imagine, saw the 2005 Bad News Bears, and forgot about that shortly thereafter, regardless of their actual opinion.

Tolerable-but-forgettable isn’t the end of the world, but given that The Bad News Bears utilizes a formula somewhat similar to School of Rock, and considering Linklater is a filmmaker who had experience with that formula, it perhaps could have been at least a little more memorable. The fact that I remember it has more to do with my ability to retain things that aren’t even remotely necessary or important, than with whether or not the movie was good or bad.

The worst part about The Bad News Bears? It isn’t really any one of thing, but it’s hard not to consider the fact that most of the kids were passable at best, and something like tiny, meth-crazed drills running amuck in my brain at worst.  Richard Linklater’s filmography consists of movies that have utilized an impressive range of actors and non-actors, of different ages, different walks of life, and different acting styles. School of Rock called for a director who could take an actor known for having a strong personality (Jack Black), and make it possible for that actor to work in the best way possible, to the betterment of the overall film, and without blowing everyone else off the screen.School of Rock succeeded in this, allowing Black to find the right balance between his character’s freewheeling manic energy, the other adult actors in the film, and for the children to be allowed to do more than exist as a series of one-note, miniature adult personalities.

School of Rock is certainly Jack Black’s showcase, and one of the best examples to date of his strengths as a comedic actor, but the film also belongs in part to the child actors. Most of them give performances that are believable and engaging. Each contributes something to the movie, which is a rare feature in movies featuring one child performer, let alone several.

The kids in The Bad News Bears give you a few laughs. It helps that Thornton is an actor who can generally find something to do with just about anyone. Ultimately and unfortunately, the child actors in The Bad News Bears come down to swearing, one-note jokes. Very little gives them the chance to do more than that. The ensemble-with-a-strong-actor-in-the-center vibe that works so well in School of Rock is practically non-existent here. That’s not the fault of Linklater, Thornton, or even the child actors. It’s not even altogether reasonable to completely blame the screenwriting team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Both men have written good scripts before (Bad Santa), and the task of updating original screenwriter Bill Lancaster’s script for a new generation had to be an unenviable one. In the end, it’s a combination of things. You can argue that the script doesn’t work with the specific child actors in the film. You can also point out that the script doesn’t really contribute anything new or meaningful to the story (although I have no idea how they would do that). What you can’t do is hold up one thing to blame over everything else. Yes, the kids are sometimes grating, and the script is lackluster in places, but there is a sense in The Bad News Bearsthat it was possible to better mix these things.

If you absolutely must blame something for the blandness of The Bad News Bears on anything, then just say that this is one of those movies in which a number of formidable elements just couldn’t find the right harmony. You can even include the notion that Linklater’s ability to be a filmmaker that knows when to step back doesn’t work here.  Even considering Linklater’s love of Texas Longhorns baseball (his 2009 documentary on Coach Augie Garrido is very good), there’s nothing about Linklater’s style and talents as a filmmaker that really help this movie in any way. The Bad News Bears could have been far worse with another director, far better with others, and just about the same with anyone else. Linklater is fine with other people’s material, but here, it doesn’t seem to work as well as it does in some of his other collaborations.

Billy Bob Thornton in Bad News Bears (Image © Paramount Pictures)

Billy Bob Thornton in Bad News Bears (Image © Paramount Pictures)

The Bad News Bears, as School of Rock does with Jack Black, comes down to being Billy Bob Thornton’s showcase, and that’s really the best thing about it. Films like Mr. Woodcock and School for Scoundrels would show us movies that didn’t need Thornton to do anything more than give a sneering impression of his better work. That isn’t the case here. Thornton downplays certain characteristics we’ve come to expect from him in many of his movies, avoids playing it the way Walter Mathau did, and finds enough subtlety to be more than just a less-bitter Bad Santa. A better overall movie may have made it more worthwhile to notice these things.

With all these different downsides at play, it may sound like a miracle that the movie is good at all. Again, it’s not that this movie is particularly awful in any one place. It’s just yet another remake that must settle for being all well and good, even entertaining at times, but something that still leaves anyone who watches it wondering what the point was in telling the story again.

Jack Black in School of Rock (Image © Paramount Pictures)

Jack Black in School of Rock (Image © Paramount Pictures)

School of Rock came out during a time in which people by and large considered Jack Black to be this fat guy, who was pretty funny most of the time. He was known for High FidelityOrange County, Tenacious D, Shallow Hal, and not too terribly much else. There would be a point later, where some would get tired of what they perceived as Jack Black doing the same series of wide-eyed expressions, short, screaming bursts of sentences, and deranged hand gestures in every single movie. That’s true to a certain extent, but Jack Black is one of the most talented comedic actors currently existing in mainstream film. The problem is that he rarely gets a chance to be anything but the small list of comedy characteristics that people have come to define him by. School of Rock features a lot of what can only be described as “Jack Black doing Jack Black stuff.” However, at the time the movie came out, that was still a fairly new commodity to most of the world. It was also material that played to these characteristics in the best way possible. And whereas The Bad News Bears consists of various elements that fail to come together, School of Rock doesn’t need to rely solely on Black to be enjoyable.

The basic formula for School of Rock isn’t remarkable in of itself. Again, it’s similar in a lot of ways to the later Bad News Bears remake. School of Rock has Jack Black as failure at life named Dewey Finn (his music career is going badly), a group of eccentric, mouthy children (the students of a prestigious private school), circumstances bringing them together (Black posing as his substitute teacher roommate in a desperate last bid for rent money), and that irredeemable protagonist overcoming obstacles to bond with the children (they start a band), win some sort of moral victory (they bond as a rock group, and nearly win a city-wide battle of the bands contest), and make one or two dreams of the moment come true (Dewey opens a school that teaches rock music to children).

You can draw a number of basic comparisons between the two. But while The Bad News Bears opened to unenthusiastic reviews and a disappointing box office, School of Rock was almost universally praised, made a nice chunk of change at the box office, and is still remembered fondly by a great many people today. There was even a 10th anniversary reunion screening recently, bringing together Black, Linklater, screenwriter and co-star Mike White, and many of the child actors.

You can compare School of Rock to The Bad News Bears all you want, but School of Rock is indeed a much better movie, a much better use of Richard Linklater’s talents as a director, and there are several reasons for that.

You can start with the script by Mike White. At the time of School of Rock, White was primarily known for writing and starring in the exceptional, disturbing psychological dark-comedy Chuck and Buck. His writing credits prior to School of Rock also included things like Freaks and GeeksThe Good GirlOrange County, and creating the underappreciated TV series Pasadena. With School of Rock, which was written with Jack Black in mind, White already knew how to write to Black’s strengths as an actor. He had proven on several occasions an ability to write smart, broadly funny scripts about misfits and losers. School of Rock might have a somewhat similar foundation to The Bad News Bears, but at the very least, White didn’t have to deal with the task of updating an older script for a contemporary audience. The story is clearly the result of his own unique writing, but it stands to reason that Jack Black and even Linklater probably threw in their own ideas, as well.

And then there’s the casting. Miranda Cosgrove is obviously the one amongst the child actors who has gone on to other things. While she frequently stole scenes as Summer “Tinkerbell” Hathaway, the freakishly ambitious class factotum, she wasn’t the only one who delivered something worthwhile to the film. None of the children overstay their welcome, wear on our nerves, or come off as so precocious that we wish there was a camp somewhere nearby, haunted by an undead psychopath in a Randy Savage mask. No one is going to claim the characters are rich in depth, but because of the flawless casting work, and thanks to White’s script, they’re at least a little more fully-formed and likable than the norm. If you ask somebody who has seen the film a couple of times (and again, this movie has its fans, particularly amongst those who are between the ages of 18-20 now), they’ll have a favorite.

As much as I like the kids, my favorite supporting cast member has to be Joan Cusack. In what is quite honestly a pretty thankless role as the uptight, insecure principal of the school, Cusack finds a lot of comedy gold to mine. Her career has been largely spent playing either offbeat personalities that appeal to her underrated range as an actress, or managing something noticeable with unrewarding parts. Her character in School of Rock falls into the second category. The scene in which Dewey takes her to a bar, hoping to convince her to let him take the kids on a field trip (the battle of the bands contest) is honestly one of the highlights of the entire movie. It emphasizes Cusack’s ability to find a rhythm with seemingly anyone. Her later confession to Dewey that she suspects no one else at the school likes her (they don’t) is funny, but actually manages to be a little sad and sweet, too. While the movie belongs to Black and the kids, there should be something said in films like these for the secondary players. Cusack, White (as the easily bullied roommate), and Sarah Silverman (as White’s perpetually-annoyed, mildly sadistic girlfriend) all add something to the movie. All of them have moments that make the movie that much more enjoyable.

Where does Linklater fit in to all of this?

…this is the kind of film in which Linklater’s talents as a director, for knowing when to step back, and let the plot and actors dictate the proceedings, are put to good use.

Besides his probable contributions to the story, this is the kind of film in which Linklater’s talents as a director, for knowing when to step back, and let the plot and actors dictate the proceedings, are put to good use. What’s interesting about School of Rock, and a few other films that Linklater didn’t develop from scratch himself, is that his ability to let the camera simply observe is different than it is in more personal projects like Slacker. A movie like Dazed and Confused focuses on the writing and acting, while keeping the stylized directorial touches minimal but considerable. School of Rockneeded a director capable of making the film appealing from a technical point of view, but it also needed someone who could also work to properly harness the varying forces that are coming together to make the movie. School of Rock doesn’t offer any real surprises in its story, nor does it go for anything in the way of flashy film technique. However, that doesn’t mean that any starry-eyed hack fresh from film school could do what Linklater does. It’s a pretty good trick to make it look like all the director had to do was show up, yell action, and let Jack Black and rock and roll do the rest. Mike White deserves a lot of credit for writing a commerical script that manages to go the entire duration without making us feel guilty for laughing or connecting to a character, such as getting behind Dewey’s quest for rock god stardom. Richard Linklater deserves just as much credit for using his position as director to keep the intent of the script alive all the way through. School of Rockis more than a funny, well-acted love letter to classic rock. The songs featured throughout the film cover an impressive spectrum of rock history, most notably when Jack and the kids nail a crowd-pleasing cover of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” over the end credits. One more thing can be taken from this movie, so sincere in its message about music that Led Zeppelin relented to having one of their songs included, for one of the most memorable moments in the film.

The plea Jack Black sent to the band, featured as an extra on the DVD, probably helped a little, too.

That one more thing to take away is this: Richard Linklater is just as capable of directing an appealing commercial project, as he is working on what could be considered a more personal venture.

It’s a shame you can’t carry that thought over to 2006’s Fast Food Nation. Everything about the production of the movie suggests what should have been Linklater’s best commercial film to date. You have a director well-versed in sly social/political commentary adapting a film version of one of the most controversial, best-selling nonfiction novels of the 2000’s. Linklater himself worked with Eric Schlosser to adapt Schlosser’s brutal deconstruction of the fast food industry into a fictionalized, multi-character drama set within different aspects of that industry. Thinking again ofThe Bad News Bears (which has now probably received more attention in this essay than it has anywhere else in several years), a look at all the components of Fast Food Nation would tell you that this should have been a triumph for Linklater and company. If not financially (although I’m sure no one wanted the movie to fail at that), then at least creatively, and in terms of intent.

Luis Guzman in Fast Food Nation (Image © Fox)

Luis Guzman in Fast Food Nation (Image © Fox)

Unfortunately, even with an all-star cast, no-holds-barred source material, personal convictions (Linklater has been a vegetarian for several years), and Linklater’s ability to juggle multiple characters with social commentary, humor, and development of both plot and those characters,Fast Food Nation amounts to little more than depressingly wasted potential. Watching it will be a frustrating experience for many, for anyone aware of how good this movie could have been.

I didn’t feel compelled to watch it until about a year ago. No particular reason for that. Just another movie that I never got around to watching. The list of movies I still intend to watch is long enough to ensure my Netflix DVD queue will remain completely full at 500 discs until I either die, or Netflix finally gets rid of DVDs.

Since books like Fast Food Nation, or the simple reality of what our fast food addiction is doing to the planet itself, have done nothing to deter my love of giant sadness wads of poorly-made meat between pieces of bread, it could go either way.

When I did finally sit down to watch Fast Food Nation, what I found was an overall narrative that couldn’t decide what it wanted to really be, characters I didn’t care about, and characters I liked not getting enough screen time. Greg Kinnear is a better-than-average actor. He’s a good fit for a slightly naive, enthusiastic fast food company man. He’s not to blame for being barely interesting. The character is like too many of the characters in the movie. He’s flatly written, and seems to exist solely to serve the non-fiction elements of the film. Because of this, it’s hard to care about his company (it’s called Mickey’s! Get it?!) sending him to a meatpacking processing plant in Colorado, in order to determine whether the plant is responsible for substandard production. Supposedly, people are only going to stand for so much fecal matter in their hamburgers. It’s the job of Kinnear’s character’s to find out how much cow poop may or may not be in their latest and greatest product line.

Unfortunately, his story, featuring a lot of really obvious jokes about how cold and selfish fast food executives are, falls flat too many times. Again, it seems to exist for no other reason than to give a cinematic structure to the source material. Combine that with his character being boring, too, and everything feels forced and tedious. This is a trend that crops up frequently throughout the film. It does considerable damage to the political statements the movie endeavors to make. Although it doesn’t help that a lot of Fast Food Nation’s black humor consists of observational material about American corporations and American fast food culture that has been better told elsewhere.

Even Kinnear’s scenes with Kris Kristofferson, as a rancher who used to supply the plant with cows, and Bruce Willis, as a Mickey’s VP, lack energy. Because of this, they fail to drive home any of the points the book/screenplay try to make about fast food health and marketing policies. The scene with Willis is fun, highlighted by his character having no particular problem with “a little shit in the meat”, but it still feels like a lot of the other scenes in the movie. It’s more or less just a moment that exists for no other reason than to make sure we understand how truly strange and horrific the fast food industry really is.

If you go to McDonalds during the day, and who hasn’t on a whiskey and spaghetti-western bender, and you’re not keenly aware of the monstrously unhealthy things you’re about to put into your body, then this movie may in fact be a revelation from the gracious heavens for you.

If you go to McDonalds during the day, and who hasn’t on a whiskey and spaghetti-western bender, and you’re not keenly aware of the monstrously unhealthy things you’re about to put into your body, then this movie may in fact be a revelation from the gracious heavens for you. Otherwise, what should have been a powerhouse script from Linklater and Schlosser is instead a mediocre movie that perhaps would have been better as a documentary.

It’s not all bad. The meatpacking processing plant, as well as the small town that’s nearby, serve as the backdrop for the other stories. And the story featuring illegal immigrants Raul (Wilmer Valderrama), Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), Coco (Ana Claudia Talancón), and corrupt plant superior Mike (Bobby Cannavale) is easily the strongest of the bunch. I never thought I would actually enjoy a Wilmer Valderrama performance, but through him, and the others who make up this particular ark, everything Fast Food Nation could have been becomes clear. Excellent performances carry one of the strongest parts of the script. Through their experiences as undocumented works trying to make it in Colorado, Linklater and Schlosser get in some impressive shots. Not only do they make some grim points about the hiring and safety practices of a facility that supplies shoddy hamburger meat to the largest fast food franchise in the world, but they even manage to get in a word or two, about how much fun it is to be an illegal immigrant in the United States. In particular, the scene in which the plant deals with an accident Raul has while on the job is chilling. This is obviously the film Linklater and Schlosser intended to make. It’s a shame that the flawless blend of performances, storytelling, and commentary in this part doesn’t quite come through in the rest of the movie.

The town itself, Cody, is also one of the more interesting points made in the film. The story of a small town changed forever, the moment one of the big corporate players moved in is a familiar one. Walmart is a familiar song. There is indeed a Micky’s in the fictional destination of Cody. Older characters in the film (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, both of whom are good) can distinctly remember the difference between Cody before the first franchise moved in, and what their town became once the first franchise proved there was money to be made. One of the film’s mixed bag stories details Amber (Ashley Johnson), a young woman who works at that Micky’s, and dreams of moving on to bigger and better towns. Amber eventually meets a group of young activists, and joins them in an act of rebellion, in the form of freeing a herd of cows from the plant. As stupid ideas are want to do, the plan fails, and we’re treated to a heavy-handed analogy moment, of the kids wondering why the cows wouldn’t leave the pen. It’s not a bad analogy, but it has that forced feel that plagues a lot of the movie, which makes it an analogy without teeth. Ashley Johnson handles Amber’s slow realization of what something like Micky’s actually does to people and communities with all her subtle talents as an actress. It’s just another case of the weak script undermining that, and by the time she and the other kids head to the plant to carry out her plan, it’s hard not to be tired of her character.

Fast Food Nation is not a complete car wreck. The movie did find a number of supportive critics and viewers, and failing to fully carry through an ambitious project like this will always be better than completely failing, or just not trying at all. Richard Linklater, Eric Schlosser, and everyone involved in the film deserve to be commended for that.

The film was not the universal triumph I would imagine Linklater wanted it to be, but that’s okay. It has been over 20 years since Slacker kicked up a lot of fuss on the independent film circuit. That Linklater is still working, still moving between personal and commerical projects, all without compromising his integrity, is a worthy achievement. He survived his initial success, and since then, he has given us a number of interesting films to check out. Some of them have been winners, some can be forgotten at no consequence to anyone, and some of them stand as respectable misfires. His career trajectory at this juncture is impossible to determine, but his obvious interest to still challenge himself as a filmmaker, and to still find the time to look for stories he wants to tell, are extremely encouraging to me. The hits contribute to that thought just as much as the misses do.