Intermittently this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: there is a grand total of one hook that they're using to sell Good Boys: it is funny when kids curse and talk about sex. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but as a comic principle, it's been enshrined through decades of use.

According to the IMDb (which is a dangerous thing to trust), Walter Matthau was the third choice for the lead role of the 1976 baseball comedy The Bad News Bears. This is insane. The film is not without its fair share of pleasures, surprisingly so, but there's simply no two ways about it: the biggest pleasure, and the one that elevates this from a fitfully amusing, profane piss-take of the usual underdog sports material to being a mini-masterpiece of of its whiffy genre, is Matthau's slumped-over- sour performance as Morris Buttermaker, washed-up minor league baseball player, mostly well-functioning alcoholic, and the very begrudging coach of a youth baseball league. I cannot say whether the performance came first, and director Michael Ritchie had the good sense to shape the rest of his film around it, or it's simply that Matthau's laconic energy proved to be a good fit for the shaggy film that was already being assembled, but either way it's a glorious mix of performance and movie working in perfect tandem towards one goal. And that goal is the creation of an impeccable vibe of hang-out good feelings mixed with a salty & sour note of miserable asshole cynicism. When all is said and done, The Bad News Bears is a movie about how some irritable bastards enjoy the company of other irritable bastards, and the irritation and the enjoyment have to be held in perfect suspension throughout the whole movie. It is a miracle, but they are.

Both the vibe and Matthau's crucial contribution to it are present right from the beginning, during the movie's unassumingly great opening sequence. Buttermaker rouses himself from a stupor in his car, and has his breakfast, a can of beer and a gulp of whiskey (one of the film's minor, pervasive charms is the endless variety of beer brands we see him consume throughout the feature, a sign perhaps of his indiscriminate drunkenness, his rootlessness, or his willingness to go with the flow). He then shuffles over to a baseball field, where he meets city councilman Bob Whitewood (Ben Piazza), and we get our necessary exposition: Whitewood, whose son Toby (David Stambough) wanted to play baseball, has sued the highly competitive, pretty local kids' league to force them to open up a spot for the kids who lacked obvious talent. He then opened his checkbook to hire a for-real professional to coach the team, being of course too busy to be bothered with it himself; Buttermaker is the perfect combination of knowledgeable and broke to take the job. A quick visit with league manager Cleveland (Joyce Van Patten) makes it clear that neither Buttermaker nor his team, the Bears, are wanted or welcome, and from here Buttermaker meets his new recruits, a dissolute crew of pint-size misfits, some genuinely antisocial and some just hapless.

This goes where it goes - Buttermaker recruits two ringers, pitching whiz Amanda Whurlitzer (Tatum O'Neal) and all-around athlete and bad boy Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley), and the Bears start to win games - but where it goes is sort of left to take care of itself. That's the tone set immediately by the arrhythmic cadence of the opening, which really did just blow me away in its tiny, nondescript manner. A lot of this is right down to Matthau, who plays Buttermaker as more slouch than man. Right from his very first beat in his very first scene, we get a good sense of how much the actor will be using his squishy face to allow us into Buttermaker's never-very-hidden inner life: he's perpetually annoyed and affronted by the world, but also far too lazy to actually go to the trouble of getting very mad at it. He routinely allows his jaw to go slack, like an over-stretched piece of elastic, leaving his mouth slightly agape in an expression that perpetually communicates "you have got to be fucking kidding me", while also leaving open the possibility that he simply doesn't want to go to the work of closing it. This gets modulated of course, but not by sentiment: even the character's big third act "his heart grew three sizes" moment is less about Matthau revealing any sort of tenderness or warmth, than it is about going quiet and turning all of that irritability inward in a shot where he basically doesn't do anything except shift his eyes. Ritchie knows exactly what he's got here: the film lingers on faces to a very surprising degree for a sports film (it's never a film about watching baseball, always about watching baseball players), and keeps hanging onto plot beats for a good while.

Meanwhile - back at the opening scene - the structure immediately aligns itself with Buttermaker's looseness. There's a very distinct sense in which we amble into the movie: editor Richard A. Harris (whose career doesn't look like much, until suddenly he worked three times with the maniacally precise James Cameron, which speaks to how thoughtful his work must have been, even when it looks as shaggy as it does here) hangs on empty moments and slow movements, giving the simple sequence of walking to a baseball diamond feel oddly revelatory. If I didn't know that this was about Southern California in the 1970s, I think I'd still have figured it out without much effort; there's an almost aggressively mellow, nonchalant, sun-baked feeling to the cutting pattern, not just the sense of "let's hang out and be cool," but "let's hang out, dammit". It also captures the specific sort of "nothing happens" that feels distinctively suburban and what were the '70s if not the great decade for suburban nothingness (the '80s being about suburban anxiety, and the '90s and '00s about pure neuroticism). Meanwhile, to cap it off, cinematographer John A. Alonzo captures all of this with a good eye for the flat saturation of his film stock, capturing grass of a green that feels like it's straining to prove something as it lies beneath a watery white sky that's just the perfect match to Matthau's hangdog sullenness. We're still in more or less just the first two minutes, here.

The film that progresses from this opening never pushes itself, never screams about its stakes - the Bears' rise happens in a tossed-off way - and always keeps focused on the character relationships. It's a basic story of Buttermaker's indifference warring with his pride in the kids, and their annoyance at his incompetence warring with affection for his directness, and it sort of goes in the direction you'd think. But it's not a nice movie. It is calculated about this, even. Most of the players are variously obnoxious, lewd, or miserable; the best candidate for a heartwarming character, Amanda, is kept from sinking into dreary spunkiness by O'Neal's skill at matching Matthau's irritability. It's a good match for her sardonic Oscar-winning turn from 1973's Paper Moon, and while it's not surprising that the filmmakers were hoping to nab up-and-coming child star Jodie Foster (she went with Taxi Driver instead), they lucked out. Foster's tetchiness would absolutely have made plenty of sense for this role, but from the evidence of her other '76 films, I don't know that she had yet figured out how to get out of her own head and be casual quite as well as O'Neal does, and that little vein of perpetual self-amusement, even when she's pissed off or insulted, is what makes O'Neal's Amanda such a good sparring partner for the prickly Buttermaker.

The end result of all this, anyway, is a terrifically easygoing film, and the best kind of crowdpleaser. It's basically a hang-out movie (it's unsurprising that when the time for a Bad News Bears remake came around, Richard Linklater got the job of directing it; it's also unsurprising that, removed from the lighthearted nihilism of mid-'70s America, he couldn't get the acerbic-but-sweet tone right), demanding very little other than that we aren't offended by kids being snotty little shits, and refusing to apologise for it. It's a film very much like Buttermaker himself: dissolute, a little shabby, but never mean even when it pretends to be, and only really interested in knowing that we're feeling good and having fun on a lazy summer day.