BAD SANTA – Blu-ray review

Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves–others, their livers.

In “Bad Santa,” Billy Bob Thornton plays an alcoholic Santa who can’t go three minutes without opening that pint of booze he carries with him at all times. But that’s just the foam on the beer. We watch this Santa drink, smoke, and puke his guts out . . . all before the opening credits stop rolling. This Santa pees his pants before the five-minute mark and cracks open that pint (on-duty) by the seventh minute. And can this guy curse? The Internet Movie Database reports that there are more than 250 profanities (mostly the “F-word”) in the 88-minute Director’s Cut, which means that Santa swears roughly three times per minute. He cusses at the kids, he cusses at co-workers, and he even cusses at his partner in crime–the one who helps him rob every store where he plays Santa, so the two of them have enough money to live on until next Christmas.

Forget “feel-good.” This is an up yours holiday film that gets its kicks from kicking the crap out of holiday cheer and wallowing in dereliction–which you may or may not find funny. Instead of going down chimneys, this Santa smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish. But those are the only clichés you’ll find here. For a drunk, this guy also has an unhealthily healthy libido, which frankly produces some of the funniest moments in this uneven comedy (he likes it “back-door,” so brace yourself–umm, pun intended).

Conceived and polished by the Coen brothers, this script by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa gives us a pretty bare-bones look at (sub)human nature. There’s no backstory to explain how Willie (Thornton) got the way he is, and no character development to speak of, or even much in the way of character interaction . . . or plot, for that matter. He’s a shiftless shit of an alcoholic when the movie begins, and by the film’s end he hasn’t traveled all that far. He drinks, he plays Santa, and he plans to rob the store blind. Yes, he helps out a kid, but only after he’s abused the pathetic little guy as much as the rest of the world, and only after he’s used the kid to hide out from people who are on his tail.

I don’t have a problem with the morality of this show, because I’ve never been one to adhere to the belief that art must be beautiful or uplifting. If it’s supposed to be a comedy, all I ask is that it be funny. But the thing is, for a film that purports to deliver a hearty shot of Christmas realism, some things are awfully hard to swallow. If you or I were working as a department store Santa and said so much as “boo” to a kid, his mom would have filed a complaint so fast we’d out the door before the day’s end. This guy, he doesn’t even wear his beard, shows up drunk, curses at the kids within earshot of the parents, bashes a nativity donkey as if it was a piñata, and somehow he keeps working, day after day? Even if “Bad Santa” is only trying to be gritty with its humor and not necessarily realistic, the basic premise still ought to be believable.

But that’s not the worst of it. With no prompting whatsoever, an attractive bartender (Lauren Graham) gets turned on by a man so sleezy and out-of-it that he’d look more at home lying in a gutter than he would sitting on a barstool or plopping kids on his knee. First meeting, she goes out to the car and gets it on with him after-hours. And then, though there’s nothing remotely attractive about this guy, nothing charming and nothing that would even qualify this guy as an interesting bad boy that might appeal to some women, she continues to see him. But of course, we’re just supposed to accept this and go with the laughs. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Same with Willie’s partner, a (choose the politically correct term):

a) midget
b) little person
c) dwarf
d) person of short stature

On one of the bonus features, legendary film critic Roger Ebert gets into it with director Terry Zwigoff over which is the politically correct usage these days, and no one seems to know. But whatever the correct term is, Tony Cox seems underused in this film. You get that sense from one of the deleted scenes, which shows some genuine comic talent. Yet, Cox is mostly used as Santa’s elf, who either shuttles kids on and off his lap, or does some acrobatics to deactivate the alarm. But he’s not the only one who seems underutilized. John Ritter deserved a better (and bigger) part than the timid guy who hired this Bad Santa, given his track record, and it’s a shame that this turned out to be his last on-screen role. Even Bernie Mac as the store’s head of security acts as if Zwigoff told him to play it understated, because you keep waiting for laughs or lines from him that just never come. Only the kid (Brett Kelly) who shadows “Santa” makes half these gags work because of his supreme naivete, and he too was stuck with the primary roll of “foil” character. Part of the problem I had with this film is that it’s all the Billy Bob Thornton show, with very few funny lines or interesting bits going to the other actors. It’s all about “Bad Santa,” but seeing Santa do his thing over and over again loses it’s shock-value pretty quickly.

Things finally get interesting toward the end when the investigation heats up and it seems like a contest to see who’ll double-cross whom, but there’s just too much same-old, same-old throughout the first few acts. And more jokes miss the bulls-eye than hit it.

But hey, what do I know. Ebert calls it a “truly transgressive, daring, off-the-rails comedy.” He gives it three-and-a-half stars, out of four. Our own John J. Puccio gave it a 7 out of 10 in his review, and the film earned a 75 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. So there are plenty of people out there who are so bowled over by the notion of Santa being naughty and just as many people who are so tired of the Christmas clichés that something this outrageous will be forgiven for any inconsistencies, just because it IS so different. And you know, I will give it that–“Bad Santa” is indeed fresh, and that’s worth something.

Frankly, though, I expected more, given the premise and the film’s opening. I kept thinking of another off-the-wall film about a vulgar character, and “Happy Gilmore” just seems so much more consistently funny to me. Though the unrated version of “Bad Santa” adds 10 more minutes, many of which incorporate some funny bits, I’m not sure those moments are worth having to slog through the rest of the film.

The 1080p Hi-Def picture (1.85:1) looks great in Blu-ray. Though it doesn’t have the high-polished surface of some HD releases, the level of detail is very good and the colors are bright and cheery–the only thing that is in this film.

The audio really brings the Coen Brothers’ selection of traditional tunes to life, which, of course, makes an ironic counterpoint to the derelict goings-on we’re watching. The featured soundtrack is a PCM English 5.1 uncompressed audio (48 kHz/24-bit), with an additional option in English Dolby Digital 5.1 and English SDH subtitles. Like the video, it’s very good. Nice timbre, nice balance, nice rear-speaker effects, and nice spread across the front speakers.

Director Zwigoff and editor Robert Hoffman team up for an entertaining enough commentary track, with plenty to say about the two versions included here, but I actually enjoyed their session with Roger Ebert more. The three of them sit on stage in front of an audience with separate mikes, with Ebert leading the way and Zwigoff seeming to answer in a candid way. One particularly memorable exchange comes when Ebert says that Thornton told him at Cannes that he was drunk during the entire filming–a decision he made for the sake of realism. No, Zwigoff says. There were a few days where he seemed sober. But yeah, he was drunk most of the time. Also included is a pretty decent behind-the scenes special that’s presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio and letterboxed, a so-so gag reel, and some pretty funny outtakes. Rounding out the extras are three deleted and alternate scenes, and a Blu-ray “bonus” I’ve never understood–the “movie showcase” which takes you to “ultimate” HD scenes in the movie. As I’ve said, haven’t we moved past that?

Bottom Line:
This one-note comedy takes delight in bashing Christmas, which is fine by me. But it’s not nearly as smart or funny as it could have been, and for me, that’s the biggest lump of coal. I laughed, but not nearly as much as I had hoped.