Judge Ryan Keefer thinks that the only thing that's regrettable about the film is the torture that Billy Bob Thornton imposed on his liver.
Our review of Bad Santa: Unrated Version, published July 12th, 2004, is also available.
He doesn't care if you're naughty or nice.
Detractors and Christmas saviors alike were universally bad mouthing Bad Santa before it ever even saw the light of day. Once the film was released, that's when they REALLY got upset, as we watch the Santa Claus costume be the victim of various things including incontinence. It was released in several versions, and now on Blu-ray, there's two versions of the film on one handy disc. So what are the results?
Facts of the Case
Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Bad News Bears) co-wrote a screenplay that, at one point, Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo) had put together. Terry Swigoff of Ghost World fame directs. In this outing, Willie (Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade) is an alcoholic, but a rather accomplished safecracker, with his partner, a little person named Marcus (Tony Cox, Friday). They dress as Santa and one of his elves, and each Christmas, they manage to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and store merchandise. The job Willie and Marcus are attempting to pull starts to get a little bit dicey when the mall security (headed by Bernie Mac, Transformers) spots them and threatens to expose them.
You know what bugs me about people who speak loudly in objection to, or protesting films like this? Why not actually sit down and watch the thing before making some sort of judgment. Honestly, I didn't consciously want to watch Bad Santa one way or another, but to tell you the truth, when it was over I was annoyed at those who said it was anti this or that, in large part because they completely missed the boat.
Is Willie a disgusting character? Sure, there's probably not a lot of discussion on this, but looking at the larger picture, Willie is a hopeless guy in a hopeless situation. He's bouncing around from job to job without any real signs of optimism in his future, aside from what the next job is. So Marcus tells him the next job is in Phoenix and it starts pretty predictably enough. He gets to the mall and stays relatively out of trouble, despite some profanity directed at his future boss, Chipeska (John Ritter, in the last performance before his death), and hooking up with Sue (Lauren Graham, Gilmore Girls), a bartender with a strange Santa fetish.
Then he meets a kid (Brett Kelly, Cheats), who is being watched by his grandmother and is relentlessly picked on. And Willie picks on him too, but as the film goes on, Willie seems to take to him a bit more. In him, Willie sees what his past was probably like: nothing but a school of hard knocks to come. So Willie wants to try to give the kid some hope, some self-confidence, and a chance he never got as a kid. Their relationship might be a little bit unconventional, but it's certainly worth noting. The end of the film provides some poignancy and some half-hearted closure for Willie. Not redemption, by any means, but he finds something to live for and work towards, even if he drops f-bombs like empty bottles of Ol' Granddad.
The disc includes two versions of the film, neither of which is the 91-minute theatrical cut. The unrated version is 98 minutes, while the Zwigoff-approved Director's Cut is ten minutes shorter at 88 minutes. The main difference that you can tell from the opening is that the Director's Cut omits the voiceover that Thornton uses pre-titles. Blade Runner this ain't, but in between that and some other omissions from the unrated cold, it's a darker film that gets rid of some of the over the top stuff and focuses on Willie a little more and his transformation, if that's what you want to call it. If there's anything between versions, I thought Thornton's voiceover at the end was going to get cut from the Director's Cut, but the voiceover seems to deliver a bit of a point. That pseudo-"Love Conquers All" ending, if you've seen it, you know what I mean, is quite silly, but so is the film. So for all those who called this film an assault on Santa simply need to lighten up.
Technically, both films appear in 1.85:1 widescreen, though the unrated version uses the VC-1 codec while the Director's Cut uses the AVC MPEG-4. The only real comparison for me was watching both cuts over three days, and the MPEG-4 sports more detail in the foreground image while not losing anything in the background, and it comes across as sharper. The PCM soundtrack isn't terribly immersive or environmental, but the Christmas music sounds good and possesses a minor amount of bass on the low end.
From a bonus material perspective, I'm going to presume that the extras from the unrated and director's versions are here for the world to enjoy. First things first, Zwigoff and Editor Robert Hoffman contribute a commentary to the film. Zwigoff does sound grateful for the opportunity to finally release the Director's Cut, saying that he'd thought it would never see the light of day. By no means is the story recounted in the book, but if you get a chance, pick up a copy of Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures, which examines the independent film movement and provides a wealth of information about Miramax studio heads Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who served as Bad Santa's producer and co-executive producer, respectively. Talk about their cutting and recutting of films for theatrical release is prodigious in that book, and although Zwigoff doesn't say it, it would seem like he was one of their victims, but otherwise, the track is decent, albeit very soft spoken, and Hoffman throws in his two cents every so often. In a separate piece, critic Roger Ebert interviews the pair for Ebert's film festival to promote the director's cut, and more of the same is recounted then. The deleted scenes that are here are pretty skippable, as are the outtakes and gag reel, some of which is a bit redundant. There's a behind the scenes piece that runs about ten minutes and contains the usual cast and crew interviews about the film, getting it made, and their thoughts on the story and each other.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It would have been nice to see some sort of piece from Zwigoff discussing the popular flack that he got, or the battle to see the Director's Cut get realized in the here and now. In some bizarre way, I'd like to see this film get the Criterion treatment sometime down the road. In high definition, of course.
I can't stress this enough; for those of you who haven't seen Bad Santa, do yourself a favor and go in knowing that there's going to be some level of discomfort and you're going to find yourself laughing a little more than you'd expect, maybe even getting a little bit touched at the dynamic between Willie and the kid as the film goes on. It's a presumable upgrade in video and audio quality from any version on standard definition now, and this disc has two versions on one disc, which alone makes it worth a double-dip from a value perspective.
Not guilty, so if you'll excuse the court, Willie and Marcus have to stop by my local mall and do the court a small favor.
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