Bad Santa: The Unrated Version
December 13, 2003
Bad Santa (2003), like The Ref (1994) before it, is an anti-Christmas movie. They both gleefully thumb their cynical noses at the fake cheer and manufactured mirth of the holiday season. However, where The Ref betrayed its own misanthropic tendencies with a tacked-on feel-good conclusion, Bad Santa does not make the same mistake. As a result, it had a modest run at the box office before going to DVD. Fans now have two options: the theatrical version and a raunchier, unrated version.
Willie (Thornton) is a department store Santa who hasn’t hit rock bottom; he lives there. When he’s not puking in alleyways or passing out on and off the job, Willie and his partner (and head elf), Marcus (Cox), break into the safes of the stores they work at and then split with the spoils. However, this successful scam hits a snag when they arrive in Phoenix, Arizona and Willie’s vulgar behaviour alarms the skittish department store manager (Ritter) and shrewd head of security (Mac). Willie’s life undergoes even more changes when he hooks up with a friendly bartender (Graham) with a Santa fetish and a little kid (Kelly) who really believes that Willie is Santa Claus.
Bad Santa wastes no time establishing its cynical worldview with Willie’s jaded opening voiceover that is hilarious in a darkly humourous way. It’s rare that a comedy revolves around such an unlikable central character. Willie is no Scrooge—he’s gone way beyond that into a whole new and surreal realm. Willie doesn’t care about anyone or anything. He pees his pants while on the job (because he’s just too hungover to move), he drinks constantly and he’s indifferent or downright mean to children—both on and off duty.
Billy Bob Thornton is something of a revelation in this role. He is constantly dirty and disheveled without a trace of vanity. It quickly becomes obvious that the actor committed completely to putting this disgusting character on screen. And yet, there is a charming quality to Thornton that doesn’t make you hate Willie completely. In fact, most of the time you are laughing out loud at his crazy antics or the things that he says to others. The film works so well because Thornton really makes the material work and makes you believe in his character.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded by excellent supporting cast that features Tony Cox (Me, Myself and Irene) as Willie’s long-suffering partner and Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) as the bartender with a heart of gold. There is also John Ritter (in his last role) as the perpetually nervous and anal-retentive manager, and the always-reliable Bernie Mac as the no-nonsense department store detective. They all play well off each other and are given moments to showcase their talents.
Also of note is Brett Kelly who plays Thurman Merman, the little kid that befriends Willie—whether he wants him to or not. Kelly is excellent as a stocky rich kid who’s ostracized by other kids his age because of his weight. He is also left alone at home with his barely there grandmother. Kelly has really good comic timing as demonstrated by the funny scenes with Thornton where he pesters him with a constant stream of questions about Santa and the North Pole. Thurman seems oblivious to Willie’s nasty responses and immune to his vulgar mean-spiritedness. Eventually, this behaviour wears down Willie to the degree that he not only tolerates Thurman’s presence but actually finds himself caring about something.
The extras are definitely on the skimpy side. First up, are three deleted and an alternate scenes, including a good bit with Willie at a Santa training class (the teacher is played by comedian Sarah Silverman).
There is also a “Behind-the-Scenes Special” that is your basic promo press kit material. Bad Santa originated as a story idea by none other than the Coen brothers. Director Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World) read the script and loved it but figured that no one would ever want to make it. After the Weinstein brothers saw Ghost World (2000) they wanted to work with him. So, he took a chance and told them he wanted to make Bad Santa and they agreed. Not surprisingly, the rumoured strife between the studio and Zwigoff that resulted in the director supposedly getting fired before its completion is not mentioned. Oh well, that’s something for the tell-all book to be written at a later date, I suppose.
“Badder Santa Gag Reel” is a ho-hum collection of bloopers. The much more substantial “Outtakes” reel is four minutes of funny blown lines and goofs. Why the two weren’t just merged together is beyond me.
Bad Santa is unrepentant in its own politically incorrectness and never betrays its original, crass, jaded worldview with a cop-out happy ending. There is a hint of redemption for Willie but on his own terms. It is truly amazing in this day and age that a film backed by a Hollywood studio would have the balls to bite the hand that fed it by making an uncompromisingly uncommercial effort like Bad Santa.