BAD SANTA – DVD review

How old were you when you first realized or first discovered that there was no Santa Claus? Six? Eight? How old were you when you realized or discovered that not every Santa on every street corner and in every department store was as upright and squeaky clean as you would have liked to believe? Ten? Fifteen? Twenty-five?

“Bad Santa” gives us an outrageously distorted comic portrait of everything we ever feared about all those department store clones with the red suits, white beards, and hearty “ho-ho-ho’s.” In this 2003 farce, Billy Bob Thornton provides us with a Santa not even a mother could love. In the process of being as flagrantly grotesque as possible, the movie provides some wonderfully off-color laughs. And the unrated version reviewed here has about five minutes of additional profanity, sex, and questionable material in it, making it even more revoltingly funny. Proceed at your own risk.

Thornton’s Santa is everything we’ve always dreaded and worse. He’s a loser named Willie T. Soke, a grumpy, slovenly, depressed, twice-divorced, suicidal, profane, boozing, thieving, safecracking, immoral, womanizing ex-con. He is the Anti-Claus.

Willie supports himself eleven months of the year by working one month, December, as a department-store Santa. But there’s a catch. He and his partner, the brains of the outfit, a little person named Marcus (Tony Cox), while pretending to be an ordinary Santa-and-elf team for a major mall store each Christmas season, conspire to rob the place of everything it’s got. They’re pretty successful at it, too, and by the time the movie opens they’ve carried out this scheme any number of times.

But this year is different. This year Willie meets “the kid.” The kid is a fat, shy, curly-haired eight or nine-year old who unaccountably takes a liking to Willie after meeting him in the department store. The kid is wonderfully played by Brett Kelly in a totally straight, deadpan manner that’s every bit the match for Willie’s repulsively extroverted behavior. The meaner Willie is to the kid, the more the kid likes him. The kid (perhaps a reflection of Chaplin’s “The Kid”) is the eternal optimist.

Because the kid has no mother and a father in jail for embezzlement, he is living in an upscale house with his senile old granny, a situation Willie sees to his advantage by first stealing every dime he can find in the joint and then conniving to live there. Apparently, the kid has an enormous inferiority complex and an even more enormous need for a father figure in his life; thus, his attachment to Willie’s Santa.

Of course, you can see where this material is going, but the surprising and delightful thing is that it seldom actually goes there. Not the way we figure it to, anyway. Every time we think the movie’s going to get all mushy and sentimental on us, like having the kid soften up the grizzled old reprobate, the story takes a different turn and leads us to something wholly unexpected. Remember, this is decidedly not a “family” movie.

The picture is filled with sex, smut, nudity, violence, and grossness, and it never lets you forget it.

Although the movie’s writing credits are attributed to Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, one of the disc’s accompanying bonus items informs us that the story idea belongs to the movie’s executive producers, Joel and Ethan Coen. Why the Coen brothers chose at the time to direct the anemic “Ladykillers” (2004) is anybody’s guess, but they left their “Santa” tale in the capable hands of director Terry Zwigoff, who had earlier dealt with the eccentric cartoonist Robert Crumb in the movie “Crumb” (1994) and with some eccentric teens in “Ghost World” (2000). An eccentric Santa was a piece of cake for him.

Moreover, the picture is filled with an assortment of eccentric characters straight out of the Coen brothers’ handbook. For instance, Willie will bed anything resembling a female–young, old, big, or tall–and as the story proceeds he meets another person besides the kid who becomes a devoted friend, in this case a sexy bartender named Sue (Lauren Graham), who enjoys making it with Santa’s. Like the kid, Sue appears to like Willie all the more the meaner he is to her. And Willie really is mean to everyone. He’s an equal-opportunity grouch.

Then there’s Marcus’s girlfriend, Lois (Lauren Tom), a cold-blooded, coldhearted accomplice in Willie and Marcus’s machinations. And there’s Gin (Bernie Mac), a crooked department store security chief who catches on to Willie and Marcus’s plans and wants to cut himself in. And, best of all, there’s Bob Chipeska (John Ritter), an ultraconservative store manager whom Willie describes as “pathetic,” and he really is. He’s a spineless milquetoast who senses something amiss in Willie and Marcus’s behavior but is such a wimp he can’t bring himself to do anything about it. This was Ritter’s last film before his untimely death, and it was fitting that he went out on such a memorable character part. Ritter’s facial gestures alone are priceless as he screws up his face just thinking about what Willie and a very large woman were doing in a dressing room of the store’s “Big-and-Tall” department.

Commendably, Zwigoff is not afraid of taking his time. Where some younger directors might have been inclined toward a frenetic, quick-edited tempo, Zwigoff allows his story to unfold at a reasonably leisurely pace, maybe relying overmuch on alternating medium and close shots but generally building each scene in lifelike, incremental steps.

I also enjoyed the moviemakers’ taste in music and wondered how much of a hand the Coens had in this regard. I mean, any film that uses Carlos Gardel’s “Por Una Cabeza” can’t be all bad (it’s the tango that also ends Schwarzenegger’s “True Lies”), although the tune is oddly unmentioned among the film’s many musical credits. Anyhow, the soundtrack is an eclectic mix of singers and composers that includes Xavier Cugat, Frederic Chopin, Bobby Sherman, Eddie Arnold, Gioacchino Rossini, Burl Ives, Dean Martin, Peter Tchaikovsky, Boots Randolph, Andy Williams, Dimitri Shostakovich, Bing Crosby, Ricky Nelson, Giuseppe Verdi, Bunnygrunt, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I’d like to hear the soundtrack album.

If the film has any failing at all, it’s a propensity for making Willie a little too venomous at times. Thornton’s portrayal of the character is spot on, to be sure, and I can’t imagine any other actor surpassing him in the role; yet his Willie can be so vile, we’re caught wondering occasionally if this is a comedy after all. Plus, Willie is drunk almost constantly, which is humorous for a while but gets old rather fast.

With an open mind and a high tolerance for obscenity, “Bad Santa” can be a laugh-out-loud frolic. Thornton’s crumb-bum character may be nasty and offensive, but he’s ultimately sympathetic; and the film’s action may be wildly uneven, but the end result is the viewer’s being uplifted in a totally perverse sort of way. It’s an unusual but very funny film. Just keep it on the top shelf and well away from the children.

The picture quality is fine, but it comes nowhere near the best available. The screen size is an average 1.85:1 ratio, rendered across a normal television at about 1.77:1, given a TV’s propensity for overscanning and such. The bit rate is also average, but the picture is enhanced for widescreen televisions so it compensates a little. While the colors are bright enough, the definition is slightly blurry and fuzzy, and darker scenes can appear somewhat murky.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound does an excellent job across the front three speakers, evenly filling out a nice stereo spread. Still, not a lot of action occurs in the surround speakers beyond the expected ambiance enhancement for crowds scenes, music, and such. On the one occasion that strong bass is required, the sonics come through. What more can I say?

There are not a lot of extras on the disc, but the few that are here are satisfying. We get, as advertised, the unrated version of the movie, for whatever that’s worth. Then, there are three deleted or alternate scenes, at least one of which, the training room scene, should have been left in the film. A nine-minute behind-the-scenes special, “Not Your Typical Christmas Movie,” follows, with the usual interviews and back patting. Finally, there are four minutes of outtakes; a minute-and-a-half “Badder Santa” gag reel; Sneak Peeks at other BV releases; nineteen scene selections, none of them telling us where the unrated material appears; and a chapter insert. English is the only spoken language offered and there are no subtitles, odd omissions for an important, new DVD release, but there are English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
It’s not my job to second guess other people and their reactions to a movie, but if I were a betting man I’d wager that a decade from now viewers will be considering “Bad Santa” a Christmas classic for adults. That’s a far cry from a traditional Christmas classic, understand. “Bad Santa” is a black comedy that Kubrick might have liked. It’s daring, ready to take chances, and with few exceptions unwilling to cop out. Or the movie may be forgotten in ten years. Today’s abrasive, cynical humor may be passé in no time. Who knows.

In any case, as I’ve said, it’s not a movie for everyone. It’s purposely designed to strike out at every cherished holiday belief possible, yet in the end it curiously conveys as much a true spirit of Christmas love as any conventional Christmas film you can name. In other words, it’s a typically twisted Coen brothers product, even if they didn’t direct it.