a.k.a. Badder Santa (The Unrated Version)
*/**** Image B Sound A- Extras B
Bad Santa (Director's Cut)
**/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras B
starring Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Lauren Graham, John Ritter
screenplay by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa
directed by Terry Zwigoff
by Walter Chaw With a premise and producing credit for the Coen Brothers and direction by Ghost World's Terry Zwigoff, the film with the best pedigree of the season is Bad Santa, making its failure particularly depressing. Its tale of ace safecracker and dangerous drunk Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), brought on board an annual mall Santa scam by criminal mastermind Marcus (Tony Cox), isn't all that inventive upon closer scrutiny, with Zwigoff's interest in the peculiarities of loneliness exhibiting themselves this time as caustic to no end and displeasingly bitter. Worse, there are two shots in the film that appear to be direct cribs of Coen Brothers shots--the first a crash zoom into an alarm clock, the second a collapse by Willie identical to a shot of Frances McDormand falling into bed in Blood Simple; what alarms isn't the instinct to borrow from innovative filmmakers, but rather the feeling of desperation that flashy camera movements in an otherwise statically shot film indicates.
The picture is a disjointed, high-profile version of Shakes the Clown, played with scary conviction by Thornton and Brett Kelly (possibly the most disturbing movie kid ever), a child who lamentably gives Willie the scrooge a reason to like Christmas. Bad Santa is aimed as a pitch-black satire of holiday pictures but is more of a cinematic bully intent on beating its audience into submission. The song-and-dance of a foul-mouthed Santa promising gastrointestinal discomfort for his anal sex partners (the idea of "pulling down the moon" in It's A Wonderful Life suddenly takes on a disquieting new meaning) gets old after about fifteen minutes, while the picture mines its best laughs (and, eventually, its uplift) from a scene where everyone gets punched in the crotch. I feel like some credit is due Bad Santa for its dedication to unrepentant darkness, except that a sunny epilogue provides the sort of contrived resolution that I believed Zwigoff, et al to disdain.
A gift is made at some point of a hand-carved wooden pickle. It's the sort of detail, the sort of sprung, surreal sense of humour, that had been the stock and trade of the Coens and Zwigoff. A particular shame that Bad Santa exhibits this spark just a handful of times before relying on broadsides against our collective sanctimony regarding children and our expectations for the genre. The picture forgets along the way that telling the same joke in the same way over and over again is as wearying as seeing the same holiday garbage over and over again; the satire (if it is such and not just another scatological shock pic) is lost in a flood of contrariness and a dearth of imagination. At the end of the day, one is left to speculate just how much interference was involved in the final product of what is essentially the first major studio film for an independent director: There's precious little of Zwigoff in Bad Santa--that is, not much heart, not much pathos, not much observational satire. Yet the ghost of it all haunts the picture, buried in there beneath a ton of populist capitulation that, ironically, results in a product not broadly redemptive, but particularly irredeemable. Originally published: November 28, 2003.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Bad Santa has now been released to DVD in three unique versions, two of which--the so-called "Badder Santa" and the Director's Cut--come packaged together on one dual-layered Blu-ray disc. (Each gets its own dedicated menu.) Ever since the film got properly Weinsteined, I've been eager to see Terry Zwigoff's original vision restored, though it's worth noting that a few things imposed on the theatrical cut he liked enough to integrate into the auteur-approved edition, technically distinguishing it from the workprint that once served as his Director's Cut. That being said, and contrary to convention, the DC is shorter than any previous incarnation of Bad Santa and sometimes so subtly different that it takes an A/B comparison to spot the changes.
Frankly, the cumulative impact of the DC is that it's missing something--it feels malnourished somehow; although I was quite happy to see go a lot of the late-film seasonal sentiment (Willie hanging stockings and lighting candles and so forth), I missed the advent-calendar subplot, which I'd considered the quintessential expression of Willie's capacity for cruelty. Zwigoff's coda is unquestionably superior, however, swapping an arbitrary bicycle for a confrontational bloodstain while slightly altering the tenor of Willie's letter so that it sounds more like "goodbye" than like "see you soon." (Willie's opening narration--a Blade Runner patchwork written by a third-party outsider at the Weinsteins' behest--is dropped altogether.) Bloated and artlessly crude by comparison, the unrated Bad Santa is strictly for people who like the movie for all the wrong reasons.
Zwigoff and editor Robert Hoffman have furnished the DC with an OK feature-length commentary that finds the former ragging on popular audiences in general and the test-screening process in particular. There's too much dead air here but at least play-by-play is steadfastly avoided, and I was happy to hear Zwigoff own up to poaching the film's classical music selections from the Kubrick catalogue, something he nevertheless claims to have done unconsciously. As well, he reveals that no less than the Coen Brothers themselves were stumped when he turned to them for advice on fleshing out Lauren Graham's cipher of a character. Also on board is a 27-minute Q&A with Zwigoff--looking more and more like an R. Crumb caricature of himself--and Hoffman conducted by Roger Ebert after a screening of the Bad Santa DC in April of 2006. Therein, Ebert mostly revels in the sound of his own voice; by the third time a casually oblivious Ebert trampled on Zwigoff's stirrings of an anecdote about Ghost World producer John Malkovich, my skin started to crawl. Love Rog, but it's things like this that make his newfound inability to speak seem like some ironic twist straight outta "The Twilight Zone".
Rounding out the supplementary material, all of which is in SD (480i) with fluctuating aspect ratios: an uncharacteristically TV-unfriendly behind-the-scenes featurette (9 mins.); three deleted scenes (really one deleted scene--Sarah Silverman's elided, unfunny cameo as a trainer of department-store Santas--and two outtakes compilations); a 4-minute montage of outtakes (read: failed improvs); and an 88-second gag reel. A/V-wise, both Bad Santas are presented in 1.85:1, 1080p transfers bursting with colour but looking a little too sharp for their own good (check out the ringing on those subtitles whenever the action switches locales). Blacks, meanwhile, are chalky and not particularly well-defined, especially in the generally lesser Badder Santa. The 5.1 audio--offered in PCM uncompressed (48 kHz/24-bit) and Dolby Digital--is similarly unremarkable, albeit less apparently flawed. The ubiquitous (and, in the case of Bad Santa, largely superfluous) "Movie Showcase" feature plus HD previews for National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, and Buena Vista's adult-oriented BD slate round out the platter. Originally published: November 27, 2007.