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Category:    Home > Reviews > Comedy > Holiday > Christmas > Bad Santa Director's Cut

Bad Santa Director's Cut


Picture: B    Sound: B-    Extras: B-   Film: B



When I first saw Bad Santa at a pre-release screening a few years ago, I must admit I found it to be extremely nasty and mean-spirited.  It also didn't help that the print at the screening I attended remained out of focus for the entire movie.  But after recently watching the new DVD Director's Cut of Bad Santa along with the director-unapproved Badder Santa DVD version, I've belatedly come to appreciate the film as a darkly-humorous character study of a seedy, ornery, deeply-depressed man.


This is by no means a traditional Christmas movie -- it makes 1988's irreverent Scrooged seem like It's A Wonderful Life by comparison -- but underneath layers of anger, sarcasm, profanity and booze, Bad Santa ultimately reveals a soft heart.


Billy Bob Thornton stars as a professional safecracker named Willie, who wallows in a lowlife world of alcohol and strippers for 11 months out of the year.  But at the beginning of every holiday season he gets a call from his crime partner, an acid-tongued dwarf named Marcus (Tony Cox).


Posing as a department store Santa and his elf helper at a different mall in a different part of the country each holiday season, Willie and Marcus go through the motions taking gift requests from youngsters as they case the place leading up to their robbing the mall's safe on Christmas Eve.  Their scheme has succeeded for several years in a row, but every year it gets harder because Willie's alcoholism only gets worse.


Their latest attempted heist takes them to Phoenix where Willie's foul mouth immediately gets the pair on the wrong side of an uptight mall manager (John Ritter in his final film role).  Marcus, the brains of the duo, continually lectures Willie on trying to hold it together, but to no avail.


Whether he's taking a swig of an alcoholic beverage, smoking, swearing or having casual sex in a mall changing room, Willie epitomizes everything a department-store Santa shouldn't be.  He also has no patience with children.


Willie's consistently rude behavior in front of little kids is what made me actively turn against the film the first time I saw it.  This aspect of the film is still the most troubling, especially when Willie berates the mother of one child for interrupting his lunch break, and later when he takes his frustrations out on a holiday display in front of a group of on-looking children during one drunken stupor.  A lot of what's meant as funny in these scenes is instead more sad and grotesque, especially when you consider that Willie's uncouth behavior may frighten some of the children.


But Willie's subtle redemption comes from his unlikely relationship with one overweight 8-year-old kid who pays him a visit (Brett Kelly).  The kid, whose father is away serving a prison term, lives in a nice house in a nice neighborhood with his senile grandmother (Cloris Leachman) as his only guardian.  Once Willie discovers the kid's living arrangements, he decides to move in until it's time for the Christmas Eve heist.  The kid, who's regularly picked on by his peers, is so lonely and desperate for a friend that he relishes even the presence of someone as miserable and insulting as Willie, and continues to address his drunken new houseguest as "Santa," much to Willie's chagrin.


In a role that Burt Reynolds or Jack Nicholson would have been equally at home playing, Thornton delivers an interesting, unsentimental performance exuding a realistic sense of embittered hopelessness.  He smartly plays it straight in what's ostensibly a comedy, albeit a very off-beat one, and you can just see the frustration and despair in his face in nearly every scene.


In addition to the kid, who has a refreshingly natural, non-precocious presence, and Cox, who delivers his obscenity-filled dialogue with gusto, the supporting cast includes a very funny supporting turn by Bernie Mac as a constipated, ill-tempered mall detective; Lauren Graham as a barmaid with a man-in-a-Santa-Claus-suit fetish; Lauren Tom as Marcus' mail-order bride from the Philippines who constantly has an amusing look of disdain on her face; and let's not forget Ritter, who gives a delightful final big-screen performance as a prissy, easily-rattled man of minor authority who's just too mild-mannered and easily shocked to deal with people this rough around the edges.


The only character who doesn't totally fit into the mix is Graham, who comes across as too normal and well-adjusted to be drawn to someone as dysfunctional as Willie.


As he did in Crumb and Ghost World, Zwigoff again shows affection for and draws humor from outcasts on the fringe of society.  His director's cut of Bad Santa runs 88 minutes, which is about three minutes shorter than the theatrical cut and 10 minutes shorter than the extended Badder Santa cut.  In most respects, Zwigoff's cut is slightly better, but it removes a final shot from the other two versions that's hilarious; to see all of what was shot, I recommend owning this new director's cut and the unrated Badder Santa version.


The director's cut of Bad Santa is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound.  The extras include a new audio commentary with director Zwigoff and Editor Robert Hoffman, deleted and alternate scenes, a behind-the-scenes featurette and outtakes.


Just as the kid does on Willie, Bad Santa is a movie that grows on you.



- Chuck O'Leary


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