Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Savant has mostly stayed away from the contemporary 'edgy' comedies pretty much since Dumb and Dumber and its credo of Crude and Cruder began to dominate film fare. Bad Santa prides itself on being thoroughly shameless as it dismantles the classic Christmas film's idea of wholesome entertainment. Its basic story idea, sort of a trailer-trash version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, is borderline inspired. No problems with the cast, either, as director Terry Zwigoff (a favorite to watch ever since Ghost World) picks a pack of perfect profaners. The problem is that Bad Santa uses up its reserves of novelty and wit in the first ten minutes. From then on the same slimy shenanigans become repetitious.
Crooks Willie and Marcus (Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox) have a great scam going. They travel the country as a holiday Santa & Elf team for department stores. On Christmas Eve they go to town stealing the store receipts and whatever merchandise appeals to Marcus' steady girlfriend Lois (Lauren Tom). Marcus is a trooper but Willie is at best an unreliable risk -- a self-hating alcoholic wretch who swears at the kids and gets so plastered that he stumbles and crawls to Santa's chair in the toy department. In their latest gig in Phoenix, Willie is able to enjoy his evenings with Sue (Lauren Graham), a bartender with a Santa fixation, and gets caught indulging his sexual tastes with an overweight woman in a changing room. Floorwalker Bob Chipeska (John Ritter) takes the problem to store security head Gin (Bernie Mac), who claims he can't make a case to fire Willie ... because he has plans of his own. Meanwhile, Willie forms a close relationship with a snot-nosed Kid (Brett Kelly) who idolizes the broken down St. Nick a father figure.
Bad Santa is the perfect picture for people who like to see actors zinging the crudest profanities in front of small children. Billy Bob Thornton's soak of a Santa goes through flatulence and incontinence jokes, and beyond Yo Momma and My Equipment jokes. Guys looking for crass humor need read no more, or can tell whoever is reading to them to stop this review right here. Bad Santa's concept is good and its execution not bad. But the bar of crudity has been raised in American comedy, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that market realities demanded that show be this offensive, just to get made.
Wacko comedies don't need to be taken to task for their improbabilities, but we still wonder how Lauren Graham's Sue is supposed can be so enthused by the presumably foul smelling, tobacco & booze hound Willie. "She's crazy about Santa" works for the first go-round, so I guess the movie is saying that running one's self into the gutter makes one into a real babe magnet. At least that's one way to appeal to the film's probable audience, by flattering them. Gross-out Willie wouldn't last twenty seconds in a real department store, a fact that shouldn't put the damper on the fun. Yet the film loses whatever caper tension it might have when things are made so easy for Willie and Marcus ... we just wait for the next dumb attempt at comic outrage.
We also wonder if John Ritter's untimely passing curtailed his role in the picture, as the actor makes a good impression and then disappears. Bernie Mac is excellent as a hardboiled store dick, and seems to be the only one capable of putting any real weight behind his tough talk. Small person Tony Cox is almost charming as the voice of reason, fast running out of patience with his partner. Cute Lauren Graham is only in for a few easy laughs, as is Lauren Tom with her brittle, stereotyped Asian woman. Cloris Leachman is wasted as a Granny who mostly sleeps spread-eagled on a sofa, with her mouth hanging open.
Some movies with crude ideas (and not only comedies) gain a sort of thematic purity by playing whatever freaky vein they've found to its logical conclusion. Not so with Bad Santa, which wants to have it both ways. Willie forms a meaningful relationship with The Kid, an impossibly dense little bugger who seems to have only that part of the human brain that can forms a visual attachment, like a baby duck programmed to a pre-patterned Momma Duck. Willie spends ¾ of the film dissing, insulting, humiliating and abusing the kid, stealing his father's car and using his house as a sleazy love nest. But Willie then turns soft on The Kid, a cheap way of letting us decide that he's really an under-loved guy. Apparently traumatizing 500 kids a day doesn't count. Bad Santa confects a sick murder (right from the gruesome low budget old noir Decoy), shifts the legal liability to other characters and turns Willie into a right-on guy after all. Yeah, sure.
So let's pretend that Savant isn't honest about all this negative critical bile and is really a guilty prude ashamed to admit he was curious about seeing Bad Santa. I still feel robbed for genuine wit or any kind of honest feeling about the characters -- or even a consistent streak of honest cynicism. Not that Zwigoff is expected to do a Ghost World every time out of the box, but swill is swill.
Buena Vista's DVD of Bad Santa Director's Cut is a third variation on the 2003 comedy. In June of 2004 the DVD got a double release, a 91-minute straight version and a 98-minute Badder Santa cut. The difference is ... uh, several minutes. This new disc is Director Approved, which might mean that Terry Zwigoff is putting his personal integrity on the line this time. Or, Christmas is coming and Buena Vista needs a new disc out.
Terry Zwigoff and his editor do provide a new commentary, which might attract hipsters hoping to break into the dirty comedy racket. Some outtake-like deleted material and a trailer round out the package. I'm hoping that more great work is coming from the talented Mr. Zwigoff; I rushed to Art School Confidential early in last summer but was disappointed by it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bad Santa rates:
Movie: Good - and pretty damn unpleasant
Supplements: Commentary with director Terry Zwigoff and editor Robert Hoffman, Behind-the-scenes featurette, Deleted and alternate scenes, Outtakes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 16, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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