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Bad Santa

Disney // Unrated // November 20, 2007
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 29, 2007 | E-mail the Author
I'm kinda sick of child-like awe and wonder, and I got the memo about the true meaning of Christmas a long while back. Director Terry Zwigoff, following up on his cynical dark comedy Ghost World, loses the usual bagfuls of pixie dust and holiday magic with his cacklingly depraved Christmas flick, Bad Santa. No reindeer. No chimneys. No bags of presents. No double-underlined morals. Just an eating, drinking, shitting, fucking Santa Claus...a self-loathing, alcoholic safecracker named Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) who's lugged around by his reluctant elven sidekick Marcus (Tony Cox) to a different mall the last few weeks of the year to play a department store Santa, then robbing the place blind and squandering his ill-gotten gains just in time for the the holiday displays to go up the next Christmas.

Willie's latest score is an upscale department store in a palatial mall in Phoenix. He barely tolerates the snot-nosed rugrats Marcus leads over to his plywood throne in the middle of the store, snarling at their monosyllabic demands for Pokemon and Fragglestick Cars or what-the-fuck-ever, and that's just when he's sober enough to bitch at the kids. Willie doesn't have his heart in the racket or...well, a whole hell of a lot of anything anymore. Within about 20 seconds of meeting the new boss (John Ritter), Willie snaps at him and defends the, um, honor of his "fuckstick". Half-passed out on an escalator, he's dragged up to the top floor, stumbles over to the Santa display, calls a paper mache donkey a "fucking spic" and beats it to tiny, tattered shreds in full view of a gaggle of horrified tykes and their parents.

Okay, self-destructive drunk. Check. Bad Santa? Title's not a bad fit. Things still seem to be going a little better than usual this time around, though. Willie's caught the eye of Sue (Lauren Graham), a bartender with some repressed sexual fetish for Santy Claus, so instead of just leering at butts as they jiggle into his plane of view, he has somethin' to grab onto. After his motel room is ransacked, Willie holes up at the awfully posh and pretty much abandoned home of a dumpy, dimwitted kid named Thurman Murman (Brett Kelly) who actually seems to think the emaciated drunk is the gen-yoo-wine St. Nick. On the other hand, Gin (Bernie Mac) -- the store's, um, constipated detective -- adds a couple of names to his list of who's been naughty and who's been nice, and he gets his own scheme cooking.

It's pretty easy for this sort of movie to derail into unwatchable dreck; the line between dark comedy and just vile meanspiritedness ain't all that thick, and even those that do have kind of a nasty bent succumb in the last reel to making everything all cheerful and riding off into the sunset to live happily, happily ever after. Terry Zwigoff straddles that balance better than most in Bad Santa. Willie's a prick throughout damn near every frame of both cuts of Bad Santa on this Blu-ray disc, and especially in the director's cut that first bowed late last year, there isn't some lame third act epiphany about what a wreck he's made of his life and how all he needs is to embrace some blah blah blah for everything to be all pressed flowers and puppy dogs. No. One of the great things about Willie is that he really doesn't go out of his way to be mean. If you bug him, yeah, he'll spew out a couple dozen four letter words in front of your beaming little kid. He resents damn near everything about himself to the point where he's pretty much doing the Leaving Las Vegas thing and seeing how much booze he can swill before keeling over. Sure, Willie might steal your car or bust open your safe, but it's nothing personal. He humiliates himself time and again and is probably scarring some of these kids for...well, not their lives, but the next couple of weeks for sure, but Willie hates himself, not much of anyone else. Everyone and everything else is just further proof that the world is an unredeemably shitty place, so there's really no point in lashing out.

Thurman eventually grows on Willie -- like a tick on a turd -- but Willie's the same vile slob in the last few minutes of the movie as he is at the beginning. Bad Santa has the conviction to let Willie still be a dick as the end credits are rolling, and he's not redeemed or whitewashed just 'cause he starts being kinda-sorta nice to a kid he's been exploiting for weeks. Billy Bob Thornton makes Willie such a...fascinatingly repulsive character that I can't picture anyone else stepping into that booze-soaked red velvet suit. He really got typecast in this sort of part after Bad Santa, but Thornton is damned good at it. Tony Cox gets a much meatier role than just another "ha! lookit the little guy" bit part, with Marcus actually determined to put forth the effort to see the heist through and is pissed off about the drunken, wholly disinterested Willie coming close to botching everything over and over again. Brett Kelly is pretty fantastic too, plastering Thurman with that kind of beaming smile that only some naive kid with a double digit IQ would have smeared across his face, as good-natured and optimistic as Willie is self-loathing and suicidal. Lauren Graham gets kinda tossed aside in a pretty anemic role, but she makes the most as the stock love interest, and she's nice-lookin' enough that I'll let it slide.

Bad Santa isn't the sort of instant classic that Zwigoff's Ghost World was, but its unwaveringly vulgar wit makes for one of my favorite holiday flicks, and it's held up to repeat viewings much better than most dark comedies.

Okay, you know how this usually goes: a director churns out a longer cut of a movie that gets watered down for its theatrical release, and then reams of that leftover footage are shoved back in when it comes time for the flick to hit DVD so the studio can capitalize on that marketable "director's cut" label. That's not the case here -- the director's cut of Bad Santa is not only short than the unrated Badder Santa DVD that made the rounds a few years back, but it clocks in several minutes shorter than the theatrical cut as well.

So, what's different? I didn't keep a running tally of every change I spotted, but I did jot down a few of the most noticeable ones. The Badder Santa version has a much longer setup, including a vulgar back-'n-forth with a security guard during the Milwaukee heist instead of the halfway-good-natured palling around in the director's cut, and the voiceover exposition that opens Badder Santa has been yanked out entirely. Willie never talks about how he's hanging up his hat and giving up the breaking and entering racket for good, and just about everything in Florida -- goofing around behind the beachside bar, the scene in the strip club, and peeling out in a stolen BMW that some putz made the mistake of valeting -- all get the axe. One character who's offed in the Badder Santa version meets a much more grisly end here (although all the splatter is left offscreen). Thurman gets a lot more screentime in that version of the movie too, with his stalking of Willie and everything with the advent calendar snipped out of the director's cut. Some scenes have also been moved around somewhat to different spots.

The unrated cut is more vulgar in some stretches, with the extended donkey punching standing out with its racial jab, and other scenes like Gin tormenting a shoplifter run longer in this version. Almost everything with Willie and Sue playing surrogate parents to this dweeby kid -- decorating for Christmas, the Luminarian stuff, Marcus helping to toughen him up in the gym -- from Badder Santa has been cut out; Director Terry Zwigoff thinks Bad Santa plays better if Willie doesn't really warm up to the kid until the very end. Because of some of these other changes, the last couple of gags in Badder Santa have to get the axe too.

Despite its title, Badder Santa is a lot more cheerful than Zwigoff's abbreviated cut of the movie. That darker bent to the director's cut works extremely well and feels a lot more subversive than Badder Santa -- a movie that's bleaker than most dark comedies but practically upbeat placed next to this version -- although I can't help but think there's a better compromise lurking somewhere in the middle of these two cuts of the film.

Video: Some studios like Fox have been keen on using seamless branching on their Blu-ray discs with multiple versions of a movie. Disney took a different route with Bad Santa, not only distinctly separating the unrated and director's cuts, but they've each even been encoded using different codecs. The VC-1 encoded Badder Santa cut looks to be lifted from the transfer from the DVD from a couple years back. It's one of Disney's most mediocre presentations on Blu-ray to date, ranking somewhere around Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back as among the most modest upgrades from DVD in their catalog.

The AVC-encoded director's cut, on the other hand, has been minted from a much more pristine source, and it sparkles in high definition. Contrast is considerably beefed up, giving the image a depth and dimensionality that the lackluster Badder Santa cut lacks. A tiny handful of individual shots have a blander, upconverted look to them, but they make up add up to less than a minute of the unrated cut's overall runtime and are easily shrugged off. In fact, the only complaints I have at all about this unrated version are some sporadic softness and some very modest speckling -- it's not even a little bit excessive, but just to see those tiny white flecks at all is unusual these days. It's also worth noting that the nasty edge enhancement from earlier DVD releases is dialed down in both of these high-def presentations, and I didn't spot any edge haloes in the director's cut at all. Just to round off all of the technical stuff, both versions of Bad Santa are presented in 1080p at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

The short version...? The unrated Badder Santa version looks fairly bland, more like something I'd expect to see on cable than a shiny new Blu-ray disc, but Terry Zwigoff's director's cut frequently teeters on perfection.

Audio: Both cuts of Bad Santa get the uncompressed treatment, but the sound design is a little too meek to squeeze all that much out of the PCM audio. Like most comedies, just about everything is anchored across the front channels, and the surrounds are largely reserved for reinforcing the cheery holiday music and some light ambiance. The rear channels do spring to life in the more aggressive climax, though. Bass response is generally pretty solid, from the throaty rumble of car engines to safe doors being slammed. Its dialogue comes through well enough, although the voiceover in the end sounded awfully hissy to my ears. I'm not complaining, exactly -- it's just pretty standard stuff for a comedy, and for what it is, Bad Santa sounds alright on Blu-ray.

There are no dubs or subtitles in other languages, although Disney has packed on an English subtitle stream along with a traditional Dolby Digital 5.1 track.

Extras: The only high definition extras are plugs for Disney's Blu-ray slate, National Treasure 2, and Pirates of the Caribbean, but the Blu-ray does carry over the extras from previous editions of Bad Santa, along with a Blu-ray-exclusive interview with Roger Ebert.

By far the best of the disc's extras is the audio commentary with director Terry Zwigoff and editor Robert Hoffman. Not surprisingly, considering the sorts of movies he makes, Zwigoff has a cacklingly embittered sense of humor, opening the track by joking about the number of Jewish names filling the credits of his Christmas movie. He gripes at length about the testing process that savages far too many movies and prompted extensive reworking of Bad Santa for its theatrical run, the miserably hot temperature in the mall, and some of the underwritten characters and clunkier scenes in the script. With an editor in tow, it kinda follows that a good bit of the discussion revolves around how the movie was cut together and which snippets were subtly inserted from one scene into another, and Hoffman and Zwigoff note that their approach to editing is often just to make each other laugh. There are just a ton of great notes -- the sheer amount of improv on the set, every one of the multiethnic cast of characters originally written as white, the Coen Brothers' involvement in the script before hitting a creative impasse, Cloris Leachman lobbing for some nude scenes as a moribund, infomercial-watchin' grandma, pissing off a 16 year old's chaperone as Billy Bob thrust his love basket into her again and again, having a safe-cracking expert on the set for the climax despite Zwigoff's disinterest in striving for any sort of realism, and...why am I listing all of this again?...the overly cold first draft of the letter in the Taxi Driver-style epilogue. A great, great track and an essential listen if you're buying or renting this disc.

Zwigoff and Hoffman pop up again in a 27 minute interview with famed film critic Roger Ebert from Ebertfest 2006. There's very little overlap with the disc's audio commentary, interestingly -- the casting of Brett Kelly is about it -- delving more in depth into the Coens' involvement with the film, Billy Bob sporadically showing up to the set drunk as a deliberate acting choice, and how much Bad Santa changed after a disastrous test screening, resulting in changes Zwigoff is legally prohibited from speaking about in detail. Along with fumbling with the proper term for a little person, Zwigoff also corrects some of the misconceptions about threatening suicide while shooting Crumb and speaks about some of the more prominent actors that've appeared in his films.

The ten minute behind the scenes featurette is a standard issue press kit for the most part, with the usual two scoops of praise and lightweight, promotional interviews, but it's worth giving the very beginning of it a look. Zwigoff notes how the project came together, exactly, with seemingly no one in the industry really expecting Bad Santa to ever be greenlit. That quick recap and his story about how inhumanly quickly the Weinsteins leapt onboard are worth a listen, but the rest is pretty much meaningless to anyone who's already seen the movie.

There are three deleted scenes that run right around five minutes in total, including Sarah Silverman cheerfully training Santas as Willie swills bourbon or something in the back of the room, a couple different improvised spins on Willie bumping into the security guard in Milwaukee, and Willie fumbling with a shrieking baby. The outtake reel is 4 minutes of flubbed lines and cracking up at some of the improv, and a sarcastic-finger-quotes "zany" gag reel clocking in at a minute and a half retreads some of that same territory. Disney's 'Movie Showcase' -- highlighting some of the scenes from Bad Santa that make for its best home theater demo material -- rounds out of the extras.

Conclusion: My favorite movie set in a mall that isn't swarming with hordes of the flesh-eating undead, Bad Santa makes its delayed bow on Blu-ray with two very different cuts of the movie. The more familiar Badder Santa version looks fairly mediocre in high definition, but the newer, more deeply embittered director's cut sparkles on Blu-ray, and it's accompanied by some fairly solid extras. Highly Recommended.

The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.
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