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Badder Santa Print E-mail
Tuesday, 22 June 2004

Badder Santa

Dimension Home Video
MPAA rating: this disc is an unrated version of the film
starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Lauren Graham, Lauren Tom, Bernie Mac, John Ritter
release year: 2004
film rating: Four Stars
sound/picture rating: Three-and-a-Half Stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

Despite “Badder Santa’” being the title on the very ugly DVD box, this movie is still called “Bad Santa,” but does differ from the theatrical release, also available on DVD. Some of the extra features are unique to this disc, but they are standard, even dull. The gag reel is brief and consists mostly of actors blowing their lines. In the very ordinary “making of” documentary, we do learn that the story of the film was written by Joel and Ethan Coen; their only on-screen credit is as the executive producers. A commentary track by director Terry Zwigoff would have been a bonus, but the movie really does speak for itself.

And it speaks very boldly, too. Need it be said that “Bad Santa” is hardly a movie for children? It is probably the first Christmas-themed movie to both play fair with the holiday—its ultimate message is positive—and to be entirely a movie for adults. It’s funny, sometimes shocking and ultimately warm, even touching.

The classic F-word and S-word get a brisk workout here; I’ve rarely heard the F-word used so freely and frequently. Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) uses it casually, in fact rarely says two sentences without using it; the word has lost all real meaning to him—it’s just emphasis, vocal italics. Because the word turns up that often, it quickly has the same effect on the viewer: it’s no longer shocking, it’s just the way this guy talks.

Willie and his black dwarf friend Marcus (Tony Cox) have a seasonal scheme for raising money for the rest of the year. They get jobs as a department store Santa and his “elf” companion. When the time is ripe—that is, when the safe is loaded with Christmas season money—the two break into the department store and steal all the money. Marcus also loads up with luxury items for his brassy girlfriend Lois (Lauren Tom). Then the two part company, rejoining a year later.

They’ve worked this scheme for years now, but the trick is abrading Willie. He’s already a self-loathing lout given to heavy drinking and chasing women. He was perhaps a more convincing Santa when they began this particular burglary stunt, but he’s not now. He doesn’t pad himself—his Santa is relatively slender—and he rarely shaves, or even pulls his fake beard up onto his chin. He shows up for work drunk, sometimes pissing in his Santa chair, growling at kids, using profanity freely, and screwing fat customers.

Now the two are in Arizona, and Marcus is beginning to get fed up with Willie’s drunken stumble through the Santa role. Diffident department store manager Bob Chipeska (John Ritter, funny in his last movie role) is very hesitant about reprimanding them, but finally Willie goes too far, loudly banging a customer in the Big and Tall Women’s changing room. Chipeska hasn’t had much help from his smug security chief Gin (Bernie Mac), so he tries to fire the pair himself. But they make noises about big demonstrations protesting the obvious discrimination inherent in firing Marcus, notably a member of TWO minorities. So Chipeska has to let them go on.

Willie rushes through the what-do-you-want business with long lines of kids, but his attention is reluctantly caught by a fat little kid (Bretty Kelly) who shows up without an adult in tow and who, we see, is the frequent victim of some older bullies. The kid absolutely believes that Willie really is Santa Claus; nothing can dissuade him, not Willie’s denials, nor his language, nor his coarse behavior. The kid is a true believer. He also is parentless; his dad is in prison, and he lives in a nice suburban ranch home with a nearly-senile grandmother. And no one else. The police have been sniffing around Willie’s motel room, so with the kid’s enthusiastic support, he quickly moves into the home.

He’s visited frequently by Sue (Lauren Graham), a cute barmaid with a sexual fixation on Santa Claus. But she also has a warm heart. She’s used to discouraged cynics like Willie, and breezes right by his prickly exterior. She even likes the kid.

Meanwhile, Gin has done a little investigating and arranges a meeting with Willie and Marcus. He has traced their activities across the country—and does it so easily that you have to wonder why no one else has. After all, it’s a slovenly, crude Santa accompanied by a black dwarf. You’d think they’d stand out on police blotters. In any event, Gin announces that they now work for him: he wants 50% of everything they get. This more or less washes over the sour, weary Willie, but we learn Marcus has plans of his own.

The basic pitch of “Bad Santa” was obvious and as crude as Willie: see a department store Santa use foul language! See Santa angrily brush off kids and their parents! See Santa falling-down drunk! See Santa screwing as many women as he can lure into hot tubs and/or changing booths! And for the first half hour or so, that’s how it plays. It’s funny, but the appeal seems limited.

The thing is, though, Santa is played by Billy Bob Thornton and the movie is directed by Terry Zwigoff (“Crumb,” “Ghost World”), and they know what they’re doing. Willie isn’t just a grotesque clown to them; he’s a fully-realized character, a guy with a horrible childhood (his dad beat him regularly but did teach him to crack safes) who’s wandered through life making no lasting connections except with bottles of booze. He doesn’t even consider Marcus a friend; they never talk about anything except their big plan. He’s never had a stable moment in his life, which he’s been throwing away in great roaring handsful.

Willie’s tragedy is that on some level, and not a very deep one, he knows this, and he hates himself both for what he does and not having the strength to change it. He’s given up on life and he’s given up on himself. What saves him is the kid, who absolutely, positively does not give up on Santa, on Willie. At first the kid seems brain damaged—how could he believe this beardless jerk is really Santa? But then you realize this is an act of will on the kid’s part: if he just keeps believing this guy is Santa, maybe this guy will BE Santa. In the person of Willie, though, this is an uphill fight.

Thornton’s performance is remarkable; at first, you dislike this coarse lout—he hardly does even one likeable thing for the first half of the movie. But then you begin noticing the pain in his eyes, the sour, self-hating twist of his lips—and the fact that he is never overtly unkind to the kid. He even tries to fix him a nutritious meal of fried bologna, which seems to be the only thing Willie knows how to cook. Willie is living in a clean, attractive home—which must have a reliable maid service, though we never see signs of one—and he spends much of his time with a kid who not only loves him, but admires him. Willie’s crust begins to fracture a little.

The script by writing partners Glenn Ficarra and John Requa isn’t very sophisticated, and contains several schmaltzy ideas. But Zwigoff and Thornton steer clear of them, although the very ending of the movie tends to be rather improbable and more sweet-scented than seemed absolutely necessary. Zwigoff lends the movie a dry, almost ironic tone, but rarely misses generating the laughs in the material. However, Zwigoff also takes his characters very seriously and respects their dignity—not that Willie has a lot, what with peeing his pants, barfing in alleys and stumbling over a Christmas display (an ARIZONA Christmas display, with straw burros).

Thornton doesn’t give an inch; he doesn’t do a single thing designed to rouse audience sympathy. He’s as true to this slob of a character as he would be to Hamlet. The unflinching honesty of this performance is truly awesome—and so is the fact that even so, Willie is awfully damned funny.

The entire cast is very good; Bernie Mac is, if anything, a little scary as the cold-hearted, greedy security chief. Marcus is never played for dwarf laughs; he’s a mean little guy but is better at acting nice than Willie is. Lauren Graham is a revelation; she’s pretty in a real-person manner, and has a salty, authoritative air tempered with a surprising sweetness. Brett Kelly as the kid (who has to live with the name of Sherman Merman) is as unflinchingly honest as Thornton, and the character is even more so. We learn late in the movie in a very brief line that no, he didn’t think Willie was really Santa. No explanation is given for his feigned belief, and none is necessary: even though he’s not especially expressive, it’s all there on the kid’s face.

This DVD runs 7 minutes longer than the 91-minute theatrical version. The additions are scattered in clusters running just a few seconds all through the movie, and usually have just a bit more profanity, nudity (very scant, actually) and at the end, gunfire. The longest additional scene is near the beginning, a scene of Willie robbing a house and getting together with a stripper; that runs four minutes. The next longest added material runs only 45 seconds, with the others much shorter. Through Google, a complete list can be found at several websites.

The other extra material is uninteresting and tepid. There are a few different takes of a dialog scene between Willie and a store security guard, but mostly it’s pretty drab stuff. The picture looks good, with richly-toned color that makes the red Santa suit stand out. The sound is average for a contemporary movie; this movie depends on dialogue, not sound effects, so there’s no particularly outstanding sequence.

On its initial release, “Bad Santa” annoyed some people and puzzled many others. They didn’t know how to respond to a movie that wasn’t designed to make its scruffy central character into a lovable scamp. Willie does become a better person through the events of the story, but he remains defiantly very much the same in terms of personality. And that’s one of the great strengths of this funny and unexpectedly touching movie; for some of us, it’s sure to be a holiday favorite. (So why was it released on video in the summer?)

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital 5.1
aspect ratio(s):
1.85, 16X9 enhanced
special features: Deleted and alternate scenes, “Behind the Scenes” featurette, gag reel, outtakes. This unrated version is seven minutes longer than the 91-minute R-rated theatrical cut.
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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