I've finally found the Christmas movie that I will watch religiously every year during the holidays. Appealing perversely to my twisted, dark inner core—that region just under the shadow of my red-blood-pumping heart—Bad Santa is one of the funniest goddamn movies I saw in 2003. Definitely not a film that has wide appeal, it's the kind of movie that either deeply offends or leaves you breathlessly heaving laughter in the aisle. (That's me over there, curled up in the fetal position.) It's the kind of movie that I use as a litmus test to identify my true friends. You say you hate this movie? Get lost. Go watch Miracle on 34th Street and let all us sinners have all the real fun.
You might say director Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World) has created the first Christmas film for people who can't stand Christmas. Originally a story idea dreamt up by those impish Coen brothers, Bad Santa is an angry, cynical, potty-mouthed ode to holiday anticommercialism. It's a slap in the face to the corporate notion of Christmas, embodied by the odious mall Santa. This film flies in the face of America's most cherished institutions and consumer traditions, and it does so with a fearless blasphemy, along with a full-bore, cranky relentlessness. It's such a rare thing, you want to hold it to your bosom and cherish it for the wholesomeness of its crusty, bold, black heart.
Bad Santa is unapologetically about a skuzzy, alcoholic, loser mall Santa (portrayed with mean-spirited brilliance by Billy Bob Thornton). He's a cantankerous, vile man given to strings of obscenity, screaming fits, and pissing his pants. And he's also the lovable, human heart of the film. He's a dirty bastard, a self-hating misogynistic womanizer, but Lord, how I love him. I love how thoughtlessly cruel he is in the face of the holiday's glossy-eyed hokum. I love how spit-froth angry he is upon confrontation with a suburban mom and tyke who bother him on his lunch break. I adore his constant stinking drunkenness under the sway of the cheesy muzak, and oh hell, everything about this guy is marvelous. He's the living, breathing embodiment of how quite a few people—myself included—feel about what Christmas has become.
That mall Santa's name is Willie T. Stokes, small-time con artist, and he's been preying on malls for years, putting up the Kris Kringle façade while he and his dwarf crony Marcus (Tony Cox) rob the mall blind on Christmas Eve, when its coffers are ripe for the pillaging. Willie also happens to be a safe-cracker. But poor Willie is on the road to ruin, and has been for a while now. He's a horrible, apathetic man, barely clinging to the transient pleasures of his vices. And miracle of miracles, it's the uncompromising love of a pathetic, overweight young boy—called only Kid (Brett Kelly)—that wakens Willie from his moral slumber. Except that's nonsense. Nothing happens in Bad Santa that resembles "feel good." There are no real epiphanies, except perhaps that Willie begins to gain a little of his humanity back. One of the great accomplishments of this filthy little flick is that its character, amidst essentially a holiday film, never loses his greasy luster, never does an about-face into Christmas cheer. Bad Santa is a modest film that ends heroically, at once giving us a small degree of character growth and never compromising its dark heart.
I had to watch this movie twice to hear great patches of its dialog, which had been previously obscured by my own copious laughter. And it's not just the no-holds-barred screenplay that's firing on all blackened cylinders, it's the array of fearless performances, beginning with that of Billy Bob Thornton, who inhabits Willie stickily, supremely, odiferously. He reeks through the screen, belching and farting, blinking drunkenly and drooling. And damned if he hasn't given us one of the most pure performances of this decade. John Ritter (in his final film role) is pinched-faced perfect as the mall manager, and Bernie Mac is equally effective as the mall security chief. Tony Cox is diabolical as the black elf with white ears, and Brett Kelly is perfectly innocent and crazily lovable as the Kid.
I can't wait to watch this one again, come Christmas time.
WHAT'S NEW TO THIS CUT?
Buena Vista has simultaneously released two versions of Bad Santa on DVD—the theatrical cut and an unrated cut titled, interestingly, Badder Santa. On this unrated cut, you get about 7 minutes of extended and alternate takes, as well as some altogether new footage. Buena Vista kindly sent out to reviewers a listing of the new footage, but after closely comparing both cuts, I've come away with even more new footage not communicated by Buena Vista, as well as an unfortunate error in their memo. Read on for a precise account of new footage in Badder Santa.
WARNING: By necessity, spoilers follow.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Buena Vista presents Badder Santa in a generally pleasing anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. However, image detail in this transfer is somewhat lacking, marred perhaps by the occasional presence of relatively heavy edge halos. There's a displeasing softness in all but extreme close-ups, and I was sometimes frustrated to the point of finding myself blinking more often to adjust my vision. That being said, colors look warm and well saturated...just to the edge of oversaturation. That red Santa suit is vivid, and flesh tones look natural but are close to being too red. Overall, the presentation is above average, but the slight overriding softness is unfortunate.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track provides a good, accurate presentation of the film. This is a dialog-heavy production that's not going to wow anybody. The most it can hope to do is reproduce its expletive laden conversations warmly and lovingly, and it does so. Dialog is clear and accurate, with no distortion. The film's score is presented with much depth, filling the room nicely. I noticed only ambient noise in the surrounds, and those occur only sparingly.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
Buena Vista has put together a relatively anemic array of extras for Badder Santa. I would love to have seen an irreverent commentary from Billy Bob Thornton included here, but we get less than 30 minutes worth of never-watch-again extras.
Among the Deleted and Alternate Scenes, you'll find three 2-minute segments, two of which are mildly humorous and one of which is just annoying. The first, the Santa Trainer Scene stars Sarah Silverman (of School of Rock), giving advice about how to be an effective mall Santa. The second, Willie Leaves Department Store, is composed of three alternate takes of Willie confronting a security guard. And the third is made up of three irritating takes of a baby screaming on Willie's lap.
The 10-minute Behind-the-Scenes Special, called Bad Santa: Not Your Typical Christmas Movie, is a standard EPK piece, featuring brief interviews with director Terry Zwigoff, producer John Cameron, producer Sarah Aubrey, and actors Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Bernie Mac, Lauren Graham, and Brett Kelly. One interesting nugget of knowledge was that the story came from the Coen brothers.
The "Badder Santa" Gag Reel is a waste of 2 minutes, a spastically edited assemblage of shots from the movie and assorted goofing off. More annoying than entertaining. And unfortunately, it's the only extra, besides the newly incorporated scenes, that's exclusive to the Badder Santa version of this film.
Faring much better are the 4 minutes of Outtakes, which contain some very funny on-set mistakes and especially some alternate John Ritter footage. Very funny.
You also get Sneak Peeks for Scary Movie 3, The Ladykillers, and My Baby's Daddy.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Badder Santa is unquestionably the version of Bad Santa that you need to own—assuming you're one of the few that can appreciate the mad genius of this angry little film. I'm disappointed by Buena Vista's lackluster effort but thankful that they've given us more dirty Willie to feast on. (I'll burn in Hell for that.)