Judge Bill Gibron has seen some pretty sh**ty situations in his life, but this flick isn't one of them.
Our review of Bad Santa: The Unrated Version And Director's Cut (Blu-Ray), published December 13th, 2007, is also available.
"I'm an eating, drinking, s***ting, f***ing Santa Claus."—Willie T. Stokes
Man, Christmas can suck. Now, forget the whole commercialism vs. purity BS and face some frightening facts. More times than not, this holiday has had its way with you psychologically, and you've sat back and taken it like a French field marshal. Maybe it was that gift you never got, that prayed-for train set or argued-over air gun. Imagine how it messes with your mind to walk towards the tree on Xmas morning, and instead of seeing a Malibu Barbie dream house or a remote controlled racing car, a pair of itchy corduroy pants—or worse, a stupid stuffed monkey—is staring you in the somber face. What could have been an adventure in scale model railroad tycooning or blissful semi-automatic millimetered violent outbursts has turned into a trauma that no amount of eggnog can cure. Then as you get older, it only gets worse. The unwanted dress shirt becomes the obligatory necktie, which in turn, mutates into a strange combination of cured meats and cheeses from a kiosk near the mall exit (they're the airport gift of last minute shopping desperation). And it's no better for the ladies. Gal presents seem to shift from independent and sexy (perfume, jewelry) to redundant and domestic (a blender, a psychedelic scarf) over the course of the maturation process.
Let's face it; Halloween has tricks, treats and lots of sweet meats. Easter can either get you right with God, or hopping down the funny bunny trail. Thanksgiving is a legalized, legitimate chance to get wasted on natural turkey Thai stick. But not even the Fourth of July, with its mandated drunkenness and national excuse for kids to play with matches, can equal the nastiness of St. Nick.
Thank God for Bad Santa. Terry Zwigoff's wicked, wonderful vulgar holiday display is like taking down the Tannenbaum, tearing it into shreds, and taking a whiz on it in front of the kiddies. It's a kick in the teeth to every excessive exhibition of seasonal greetings. It argues against the mass hysteria mawkishness of making sure the halls are decked, the angels on high have been heard, and all fideles have been adeste'd. Foul-mouthed, felonious, and filthy, this is one movie that's not afraid to fart on and fondle its sacred cow subject with a total bad-touch take on Christmas. It is also one of the most inventive comedies in a long while.
Facts of the Case
Willie T. Stokes and his partner, the diminutive Marcus, have a pretty sweet scam going. Every year around the holidays, they get themselves hired by a department store as Santa (Stokes) and his elf helper (Marcus), and while servicing the needs of the juvenile population and their parents, they case the joint. See, Stokes and his buddy are burglars, and once the stores close on Christmas Eve, our two Yuletide felons go to work. Only problem is, as the years have gone by, Willie has become a drunken, womanizing bum. He's abusive to the children and barely coherent when he works. Marcus warns him that another screw-up means the end of their partnership, but Willie is too lost in an alcohol-induced haze to care.
Now in Arizona to pull off another job, Willie runs into a rotund, socially retarded child named Thurman Merman. Thurman lives with his decrepit old grandmother in a huge mansion. Seems his father is visiting "the mountains" (also known as federal prison) and his mother is long dead. Without anyone to relate to, Thurman becomes fixated on Stokes/Santa, hoping he will become his friend. And when Willie needs a place to stay, the debauched degenerate becomes a fixture in the Merman home.
Soon, the planned robbery starts to fall apart. Willie is caught having sex with a customer in the Ladies Plus-Size dressing rooms and is nearly fired. The store security guard begins investigating Willie and Marcus's background. It isn't long before identities are revealed, double-crosses implemented, and the Spirit of Christmas shat upon by the most toxic St. Nick ever to ho-ho a ho: Willie T. Stokes, AKA the Bad Santa.
Sometimes, enough is enough. Sometimes, a holiday pushes things just a little too far, and it takes all you can muster not to snap and start shooting people. Christmas needs a good kick in the sugarplums and it knows it. For far too long, this faux religious ridiculousness (Jesus has surely stopped celebrating December 25th as His birthday—would you want to share your special day with snowmen, dwarves, and the Ewoks?) has stuck its saccharine, syrupy snot into people's lives and pleaded with them to take the whole "give and receive" thing seriously to heart. What with the barberpole-striped candy canes, the jolly old elf with a belly like a bowl full of jelly, and the even stranger thought of dozens of dwarves manufacturing Playstations, this holiday has got its holly up its glass balls and it just doesn't care. A celebration of peace on earth and goodwill toward men should not require such a major outlay of cash or overwhelming feeling of guilt. There used to be a time when you went Xmas party hopping, and all you had to bring along was a fifth of booze with a bow on top and everyone considered you Saint Friggin' Nick. Now, if you don't show up with some manner of designer do-hickey with rack and peanut steering, you're Ebenezer Scrooge's crack cheese. Someone needs to stand up to this bully of a bash and punch it right in its three wise men. It's about time someone showed Christmas and its fat-assed corporate sponsors a thing or two about respect for the human race.
Praise monkey spank then for Bad Santa, Terry Zwigoff's tasteless, tacky tour de force that finally gives Christmas the bitch slap it so richly deserves. Like pissing on the Yule log or leaving Santa a plate of fetid feces for his fireside snack, this Hellmark greeting card takes that symbol of self-serving sanctimony and a billion crushed adolescent dreams and charbroils his big booty. Using every expletive known to man—or at least to longshoremen and sailors—and stringing them together in ways that would make Lenny Bruce's ballsack blush, Bad Santa sets out to undermine every Rankin, Bass, Krofft, Schulz, Seuss, and Disney diorama that turns this winter holiday into something Currier and Ives dug out of their bellybutton. Taking no prisoners, allowing no leeway, and as scatological as it is superb, it instantly takes its place along with A Christmas Story, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Jenna Jameson's Naughty Noel as certified mother-decking Xmas classics.
Now, the unbridled bile spewing from most of the characters may put some viewers off. A few will take issue with the constant F-word onslaught. And there will be those who'll have their roasting chestnut sensibilities permanently damaged by the complete disrespect for parents, children, and tradition this movie shows. But for those of us out there who get nauseous every time we hear "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" (is there anyone who truly doesn't?), and who feel the rage well up inside them whenever a greeting card with an impressionistic Mary and Child design on it arrives in the mailbox, Bad Santa cleanses our cheerless palates perfectly.
Willie T. Stokes is the kind of movie character John Waters has been creating for decades (and that the Farrelly brothers envision in their feeble gross-out world). Indeed, Bad Santa's Stokes gives Dawn Davenport and her Cha-Cha heels tantrum in Female Trouble a full 90-minute motion picture workout. A combination of dirty old man, human landfill, and Eddie—the mascot for metal giants Iron Maiden—Willie is not a member of the walking wounded, he's the guy doing all the damage. So lost in an insular world of crime and corruption that he practically bleeds jailhouse gray, Stokes treats everyone around him like one big adult diaper, hoping that a certain sense of super-absorbency keeps him from the morgue slab. Crude, lewd, morally bankrupt and physically diseased, Willie is like a semi-human road show ad from the 1950s, a warning sign for the ravages of alcohol, VD, and sin, combined. Truly defining the concept of the anti-hero (anything valiant about Willie lies 20,000,000 hectares beneath the Earth's crust), and totally committed to the lifestyle of eviscerating excess he's enjoyed for decades, there has perhaps never been a less redeemable character in the course of a comedy. Indeed, had the tone shifted ever so slightly into something less than farce, Willie and Bad Santa would become the kind of psychological study that another "Bad" movie (Bad Lieutenant, that is) engaged in. But thanks to Billy Bob Thornton's amazing performance, the incredible cast around him, and Terry Zwigoff's (Ghost World, Crumb) brilliant direction, this Kris Kringle is one funny mofo.
Trading on his good old boy hooker-chasing truck driver persona, Thornton gives one of his best performances as the permanently pissed off and pickled Stokes. For the first few minutes of the movie, he keeps you off guard, making you wonder if he's really such a rat, or just playing one to justify his life of larceny. But as the film progresses and the overriding depths of his depravity finally start to sink in, Thornton digs down to draw on a pain and a perversity that are equal parts sad and sensational. In an industry that hates to take chances, and lives or dies by the likability of its lead roles, Bad Santa tweaks Tinseltown's conventions and challenges you to accept this ambulatory asshole as your link to the inner world of the film. And dammit if Thornton doesn't do his job perfectly. With a little help from the clever observations of crass, overcommercialized behavior during the holiday season (arrogant parents in full-fledged belief that their child's holiday must be merry and bright) and just the slightest sprinkling of humanity hiding out inside Stokes's sin-filled skin, Bad Santa finds a way to allow the audience to realize, and even sympathize, with Willie's poor plight. True, many of us don't know the joys of waking up in a pool of our own sick, or suffering through a nicely caught case of the clap, but Bad Santa uses these maladies as the basis for a meditation on the universal disconnect of the human spirit. Willie is the modern Xmas icon, the symbol of a simple holiday pushed to the breaking point.
This is a very smart movie. It embraces conventions (cute kid, understanding girlfriend) as it simultaneously circumvents them (Thurman is, for all intents and purposes, a freak). And it understands that, in order to get to the heart of situations, they have to be completely deconstructed. Indeed, Bad Santa could be considered a commentary on the concept of Claus himself—what he stands for and why he's so beloved. All gift giving aside, there is a universal hope and love of life contained in that big red suit and apple cheeks. Taken as a serious sign of the season's sentiments, the traditional Coca-Cola ad Santa has always illustrated the happiness and prosperity of Christmas. He stands for an ideal that health, wealth, and charity can overcome even the most miserable circumstances. But Bad Santa is not so much the polar opposite as the sour, skeletal truth. Willie Stokes is the sick, dying thing inside the classic over-plump persona. He's the commercialism concept taken to the extreme, the essence of every drunken sex-filled office party and the Christmas morning tantrums that come when the fad "it" toy of the season is not sitting under Junior's artificial tree. Indeed, if you follow the arch of Bad Santa, how the plot moves from passable to pathetic and ever downward, we can see the death of St. Nick over the course of the last few decades. By the end, when Stokes is being chased by the police with guns drawn, the inevitable conclusion becomes crushing. And yet, thanks to its wit and wisdom, Bad Santa manages to alter those circumstances into something suggesting optimism—and rebirth.
But Bad Santa is first and foremost a comedy, and what a gloriously blue-balled bonanza it is. As the ebony Mini-Me of the North Pole posse, Tony Cox's Marcus is perhaps the biggest scene-stealer in the entire film. When you can go toe-to-toe with a dozens-dishing Bernie Mac (playing the department store security chief) and come out on top, you know you're in capable comic hands. Mac himself plays it cool and clever as the store dick with a decidedly devious personality. John Ritter, in one of his last roles, fills his department store manager with so much suppressed sexual perversion that when Mac and he discuss an incident of anal sex in the store (Santa is responsible, of course), he squirms up his face with hilariously unfulfilled desires. But the true revelation here is Brett Kelly as the Porky Pig to Billy Bob's dirty Daffy Duck. As Thurman Merman, Kelly is every fat kid concept come to life, topped with even more nerdy isolation because of his hectic home life. Toss in a stunted sense of reality, a far too rich imagination, and a portly demeanor that just screams "SUUUU-EEEEE!!!" and he becomes the hilarious heart of the film. You never quite know what to make of Thurman in Bad Santa, and everyone plays off that potential perfectly. Add in Thornton's bravura bad-assiness (truly the best overall performance he's given since Sling Blade) and this is one holiday film filled with memorable, if miscreant, characters.
Director Zwigoff is also to be praised for finding the proper tone for this entire anarchic enterprise. At first glance, Bad Santa is just a swear-filled farce, a spit in the eye of everyone who thinks sacred cows like Christmas and Santa deserve respect, not ridicule (indeed, Dimension's parent company, that infamous House of Mouse, distanced itself from the film like a pool of puke outside Space Mountain when it met with controversy upon release). And if handled as such, the one-note notion would slowly consume and kill the film. But Zwigoff is messing with traditions here, balancing the standard sentimental stance of most Christmas films with the bad taste humor of a thousand dirty jokes. With the freedom to do whatever he wants (even more evident on the Bad(der) Santa unrated cut of the film), Zwigoff does something very unusual here—he takes his time. He doesn't hit us over the head with non-stop hijinks, and his narrative drive is not reeling on rapid-fire riff mode. Instead, he lets scenes play out, giving actors a chance to explore and expand the humor. He keeps the moments more mundane than manic, and allows for hyper-reality only when it's necessary to sell a sequence. As he did in Ghost World and, to some extent, Crumb (documentaries, by their very nature, follow this format), Terry allows his camera to be a passerby, to witness the wild wicked world around it and drink it all in with flat authority. He never superimposes the lens into situations, and he lets scenarios play out before, not because of, him. As great as the cast and the script are, without Zwigoff's steady cam hand, Bad Santa would be a loud, lame load. But instead, it is the true comic centerpiece for a completely fetid festival.
Hopefully, the holidays now know what they're up against and will bow down to kiss the rump of the new master of mistletoe. Bad Santa is like Brioski after a starch heavy dinner at the in-laws before midnight mass. It's a cookie-clearing colonic aimed at spewing on everything that Hardrock, Coco, and Joe stand for. For some, its soiling of the Spirit of Christmas will be just another link in the South Park / Mr. Hankey school of sophomore spite. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have, perhaps, created the most mischievous misinterpretations of Christmas ever, between a talking pile of poo and an all-out Wrestlemania rematch between Santa and Jesus for holiday domination. But Bad Santa takes all this blasphemy one beautiful, ballsy step further. By turning the fictional fat man into a gaunt sexual predator, a disgusting example of human humming who picks his buttcrack in public and is more than happy to have his horn swoggled by a bartender with a Santa fetish, Terry Zwigoff and his cast are able to finally put a stake in the soul-sucking shamelessness of Christmas once and for all. While you can argue for some manner of redemption at the end of Bad Santa (at least for a few of the characters), the truth is that there's really no saving this once-sensational holiday. It is no longer a winter wonderland snapshot of happier times and glad tidings of great joy. Instead, the season has become exactly like Willie T. Stokes—disillusioned, bereft of betterment for all of mankind, and settled in the soggy undershorts of the consumer dreams of children. And like a superhero for the cynical, Bad Santa is here to lick candy canes and kick ass—and he's all out of striped treats.
For those wondering what exactly the Unrated Cut of Bad Santa (called Bad(der) Santa on the DVD cover) contains, this review may not answer all your questions. Other sites have done a side-by-side comparison of both films (mostly by a single writer commenting on the divergent elements between the two discs), and since they had access to that material, it would be best if the truly detail-oriented reader sought out those takes via a Google search. From the research done by this writer, Bad(der) Santa is seven minutes longer than the theatrical release (which is available on the standard R-rated DVD) and contains about five minutes of brand-new footage not seen before. These segments include a Florida robbery scene near the start of the film, as well as a confrontation in a mall parking lot between Willie and a security guard. Most of the other material is just extended versions of sequences already in the film. There are extra thrusts and added sexual gratuitousness (always a good thing) in many of Willie's encounters with the ladies, and the language is also amped up a couple of naughty notches with added moments of cursing and cussing. Some plot points are strengthened (the final robbery) while others are merely measured out for supplementary silliness (Granny's "death" scene). Since this is all new to yours truly, let it be said that Bad(der) Santa plays spectacularly in this elongated version. The cuts mentioned would, perhaps, undermine the fabulous flow of the film. When you advertise your Santa as being a foul-mouthed degenerate, as many examples of this concept as possible should be included.
Visually, the Bad(der) Santa DVD contains a decent 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image suffering from a little of that telltale haloing that comes from misplaced edge enhancement. But otherwise, the colors are bright, the transfer is clear, and there are plenty of defined details. Zwigoff doesn't go for many fancy shots (save for a heads-on view of Stokes passing out, floor rising up behind his inebriated head), and this picture serves his vision well. As for the sound, we are treated to an excellent 5.1 Dolby Digital Stereo mix that keeps the dialogue clear and the atmospheric elements (like the department store sonics) perfectly balanced. While the immersion is not as heavy as one would like it—especially from a film that takes place in distinct places we all know—the overall audio is very good.
On the extras side, however, Dimension turns skinflint on us. Granted, it's nice to have this extended version with all the additional footage, but do we really need so many outtakes, gag reels and deleted / extended scenes? Especially when there is so much duplication between the three? If you watch the bloopers (funny, but very superficial) you will see about half the material in the outtakes and almost a third of the offerings in the deleted / extended section. Unless you find differing improvised takes on some of the more scandalous jokes must-see funny, you may not find much substance in this set of bonuses. The behind-the-scenes material is better, as it allows us to watch Zwigoff and crew as they craft this film and its funnier bits. Watching Billy Bob work with his child co-star is inspiring, as he seems to take a real shine to the kid. And anytime we can catch Mac or Cox talking more toxic trash to each other, it is a welcome example of brash blue humor at its best. Still, what this DVD craves is a commentary…maybe even two. It would be great to hear Zwigoff discuss the elements of production, from script approval (hinted at in the featurette) to the post-release controversy. Even better would be a chance to hear Thornton, Cox, Mac, and others discuss the movie's making and the final result. Without this aspect, the digital release of Bad(der) Santa is rather basic and very repetitive.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Bad(der) Santa: The Unrated Version should not be offered in a separate DVD package. As a hard R to begin with, there was no crime in adding an uncut, unrated version to the original release of the film. The rationale behind this decision is obviously financial. People who liked or loved the original will go out and plunk down $20 more to see the filthier, friskier version. But how fair is that? Why not make it a two-disc set and be done with it? According to Internet sources, the two different DVD presentations contain basically the same bonuses (the less-than-impressive gag reel being the only facet found exclusively on the unrated version), so it's not like it's a matter of finding additional disc room to fit in all the extra context. No, Dimension is up to something, and this critic has a theory and an admonishment: caveat emptor, kiddies. Around Christmas time, don't be surprised if a Bad(dest) Santa: The Special Edition graces your local electronics store. This separation-before-compilation mentality just stinks of a future double dip…and if they use the above name for the set, I swear I intend to sue!
In some ways, Bad Santa is the next logical step in the deconstruction of the Christmas holiday; a reimaging first began by the original SNL killjoy, Mr. Mike—Michael O'Donoghue—with his script for 1988's Scrooged. Featuring Bill Murray at its bitter, skeptical core, the forced follies of the season were channeled through Charles Dickens's classic ghost story to expose the crassness inherent in the modern ideal of Santa and his sleigh. But even as far back as 1983's A Christmas Story, the first Noel was getting a sarcastic dose of its own syrupy medicine. Though far gentler than either of the aforementioned movies, Ralphie's rendezvous with a Red Ryder BB gun laid the groundwork for giving Xmas a sharp poke in the eye.
Bad Santa (with its Bad(der) Santa doppelganger) takes this delightful disrespect to levels unmentionable in mixed company. Via its ornery everyman, the despicable Willie T. Stokes, we can see the ultimate result of all those Norelco commercials with the shaver-sledding Santa, the thousands of false plaudits that people would normally never say to each other, and the strange sense of suicidal tendencies among those poor sods stuck shopping on Christmas Eve. Bad Santa seems to suggest that, until you reach rock bottom, looking up at life from a cesspool of your own putrescence, you'll never fully regain your integrity. Willie Stokes is indeed the crudest, most craven Kris Kringle in the lexicon of the mythological. But Bad(der) Santa: The Unrated Version illustrates that even the most miserable, mucus-covered crook can be redeemed. He just needs to drag the holiday down with him in hopes it too will rise out of the repugnant. Christmas needs a good swat in the scrotum…and Bad Santa is that trip to "Bangkok."
Bad Santa, Bad(der) Santa: The Unrated Version and all parameters in between are hereby found not guilty and are free to go. Dimension is warned that, when the eventual double-dip comes along, the Court will recommend that the Digital District Attorney open up a new file to investigate this obvious financial flimflam. Court adjourned.
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• Added Footage Incorporated Into the Film
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