Bad Santa - The Unrated Version Review

"If I'd known I was gonna have to put up with a bunch of screaming brats pissing on my lap for 30 days out of the year I would have killed myself a long time ago.

Come to think about it, I still might."

Willie T. Stokes

Written by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra and adapted from an original idea by Joel and Ethan Coen, Bad Santa tells an altogether different, festive tale that separates it from every other Christmas themed movie ever made and ultimately makes it one of the best.

Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) is a man of no shame - a man who pisses himself, suffers from bouts of depression, drinks like there's no tomorrow, bad mouths children and cracks safes - the latter three providing the bane of his existence. Throughout the year Willie gets by on the money he makes through stealing from shopping malls over the festive period. For 30 days he dresses up as Santa Clause and with the help of his little friend, Marcus (Tony Cox) he cheats his way through malls all over America, belittling children, telling lies and not giving a shit about anyone else but himself. This year he's in Phoenix and it's going to be his most difficult stay, as he soon has to deal with an overweight young boy (Brett Kelly) who constantly follows him everywhere he goes, and security chief, Gin (Bernie Mac) who has a very close eye over proceedings.


Every year, come Christmas we see a slew of movies designed to remind us how important the season is and how schmaltzy we should all be to each other, giving presents and cuddling by a big warm fireplace with bells a ringin' and Jimmy Stewart on the television wishing us merry Christmas from our kitchens. Well that would be the American ideal anyway.

Bad Santa is the first truly original Christmas movie that I've seen. Clever and daring, it's a reminder of how Christmas has become nothing more than a quick fix to solve our problems once every year and when it has passed we return to normality, waiting for the next one to come around. The sensibilities that surround the holiday are made clear in this film, with the notions of overbearing seasons' tidings and good will to all men. Well this time there is no good will to all men. The shopping mall Santa, depicted in such a nasty, vulgar manner that makes us wonder what the men behind the beards do for the rest of the year is examined more closely than it ever has been. We don't know how many of these Christmas helpers really live their lives and in this instance Bad Santa certainly does not paint a pretty picture about the fantastical side of Christmas, rather it paints us a realistic scenario of a hate filled season and a man who struggles to find redemption.


It may not be that Willie is actually seeking redemption but clearly he suffers from a poor upbringing that reflects through his mannerisms. He's a self loathing character who has little respect for himself as he does for those around him, but on occasion he reflects upon his life and feels some kind of remorse that he keeps bottled up. He never celebrated Christmas as a child because of his "worthless-coward fucking asshole" of a father who did nothing but beat on him. This raises the question of whether or not those past events make Willie's behaviour acceptable.

This element of the story is where the movie can succeed or fail. If this had been any other Christmas movie, for example a family one then we would have seen Willie's character grow into a loving being, discovering a new found respect for life, in a super disgustingly, vomit inducing schmaltz fest. Thankfully Bad Santa steers clear from ever becoming a corny and overly clichéd piece of work, even though Willie's progress is gearing toward that of self healing his character and personality hold true. Part of the success in the storytelling is that director, Terry Zigoff never loses sight of the central character and though by the end Willie may have grown somewhat Zigoff doesn't cop out and diminish him. The film's closing moments could however be argued by many as those which destroy the film, but personally I found them to be well handled.

The changes that take place inside Willie come as a result of making friends with Herman Murman (the kid) and the way in which he helps the boy to stand up for himself, something Willie had to do when he was a kid. At the end of the day Willie is still a crook who must pay for his crimes but before that happens we can relish in his criminal activities. In a twist of fate, the viewer ultimately sympathises with Willie, although knowing that he's a foul human being he can still be loved and rooted for, he's a villain who we want to succeed because in some sort of twisted way he brings us happiness for 100 minutes.

Another thing that works in the film's favour is how unpredictable it is. There are times that you think you know where it is heading but the next thing you know it's already moved on to the next set up and you're nowhere nearer to figuring how things will eventually pan out. While there's an inkling of a happy ending on the horizon going through your mind you can never be really sure and that is part of Bad Santa's gift. Ho Ho Ho…

If anything were to compromise the film then perhaps it would be the final 20 minutes that see Willie and Marcus take on their final robbery before they're set to leave for the next state. It is at this point that all the best gags have been used and pacing wise the film struggles to try and wrap everything up. Until this point the director has taken his time in letting the story unfold. It's here that Willie ultimately makes his decision to turn around his life and for a good ten minutes the story stays serious, with an unexpected twist that will still have you rooting for Willie. There's not enough here to make me think that the film suffers as a whole, it's just after a solid 80-90 minutes of great humour the ending can seem a little removed from the rest of the film. The other problem is the way in which the characters played by John Ritter and Bernie Mac are given little to do toward the end. We know what happens to Mac's character, Gin but it is glossed over, as for Ritter I am curious about this and wonder if he was meant to have more scenes before his untimely death.


In addition there is an often surreal nature to the films proceedings that is quite reminiscent of the Coen films, with sudden moments coming from nowhere such as Willie being attacked by a man insisting he's not gay, to Herman uttering things involving a talking walnut. These and many more are welcome gems that leave you in awe at the sheer tenacity of the director who would prefer that we make what we will of what is happening before us. With little explanation behind them it’s also likely these moments will easily waft over a viewer's head so may be considered weaker elements in the film, but if you were to try and look deeper then you might be able to find meaning through a social commentary and writings from the bible in what would appear to be either hidden metaphors or deliberate attempts to simply forego explanation and just mess with our heads. If you expect too much to be revealed then inevitably you will be disappointed, if however you're willing to go along for the ride and take all the film has to offer in high spirits then you will enjoy a lot of it.


Best of all, Bad Santa has an astounding cast and I don't use that term lightly. Heading them up is Billy Bob Thornton, an actor who I've only encountered twice on film - in the Coen brothers' Intolerable Cruelty and as the voice of Jigo in Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from his performance in Bad Santa. Boy did he blow me away, this role is tailor made for him and there is no one else that I could possibly envision to offer a better performance. Thornton encapsulates his character to such a believable degree that he just leaves me in awe as he presents a character so bitter and shockingly rude with everything you hate in the world bound up inside, yet you'll never truly despise him. Billy Bob Thornton has conjured up one of the most memorable performances that I've seen from any film in the last year, in a marvellous turn displaying a range of emotions so becoming of his character and more.

Working along side Thornton is Tony Cox, playing his long suffering sidekick, Marcus. Cox provides some hilarious exchanges between himself, Thornton and more notably Bernie Mac in one such excellent moment that has his character arguing with Gin over the obvious physical impossibilities of him ever being able to shift Willie's drunken ass out of the mall, not to mention a great negotiating scene that plays out later. Accompanying Marcus is his girlfriend Lois (played by Lauren Tom of Futurama fame) who also happens to be a very cold and greedy woman and helps Marcus and Willie in their plans. Lauren plays her part equally emotionless as Thornton's and is quite a surprising addition to the mix.

Lauren Graham (star of Gilmore Girls) has been brought onboard to play Willie's love interest, Sue. It works well, which is something that again could have been tiring but the quirkiness of the character is what makes her fun to watch. Since childhood Sue has had a "thing" for Santa Clause. It's when she first sees Willie enter her bar that she sets out to get him as drunk as possible and take advantage of him. Sue is as oblivious to Willie's remarks as the kid is, in fact it turns her on more and makes this an interesting relationship that makes you wonder just how it can work, but it does.

Brett Kelly plays the role of Herman Murman, the kid who antagonises Willie as much as Willie does to others. I am not the biggest fan of child actors and it usually depends on A) their personality and B) how well they're directed. Thankfully Terry Zwigoff not only directs well but has picked out a great kid to carry the role. It's Kelly's superbly dry performance that makes his character so great, he never tires of Willie's constant, nasty attitude and shrugs off everything he says, which makes for some brilliant moments as he's the only person to unintentionally get Willie so damn annoyed.

This now brings me to Bernie Mac. I've only seen a couple of episodes from his television series, which has him playing a lighter character than the one we see here. To begin with he is a man of very few words as we only get brief exchanges between him and John Ritter's store manager, but as the film progresses Bernie comes into his own and is wonderful. His character, Gin is one of those that you wish had been used more but what we get is extremely entertaining and I think we're going to see a lot more of him in future, already a seasoned actor he deserves to go on to attain even greater recognition.

Finally, this review wouldn't be complete without mentioning the late John Ritter as store manager, Bob Chipeska. In his final performance onscreen John Ritter gives it his all as the weak, pathetic manager who doesn't have the balls to get things done personally, instead relying on others to do it for him. I've always enjoyed Ritter's performances onscreen and it is still a sore point that he is no longer with us but at least he makes us laugh our asses off one last time. A brilliant physical comedic actor, just with facial expressions he gets us going. There are some priceless moments as he sits down, talking to Gin about sexual behaviour and little people in and out of the office. John Ritter goes out on a high and leaves an impressionable mark on such a wonderful little film.


Bad Santa has been released on DVD in two versions - the original theatrical cut (rated R) and ‘The Unrated Version’ (also rated R due to Buena Vista’s policy against released Unrated movies). Running five minutes longer than the theatrical cut, what exactly has been added I cannot say having never seen the film until viewing this DVD, so if anyone is willing to fill me in on what is new here then I'd appreciate it very much. Saying that I can only assume that the film benefits more from having these additional scenes and I'm actually curious as to why they were never seen in the cinema because in all honesty there is nothing here that I would consider to be over the top.

The DVD

I'm a little disappointed that such a great film has been given such a lazy release. As much as I'd like to see an improved release in the future it is perhaps unlikely that it will happen.

Picture

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and enhanced by a decent anamorphic transfer. There is noticeable edge enhancement present throughout, as well as some softness and slight grain. For a film this recent I am disappointed by the transfer somewhat but at the same time it is clear and close up shots are generally good. The colours are strong, with the most important colour, red never bleeding or appearing to be too difficult on the eye.

Sound

Sound wise the DVD offers English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mixes. The audio is generally acceptable for a film made up of so much dialogue, with most of the action taking place through the front speakers. Rear speakers aren't given much of a workout and provide effects such as the many background conversations taking place and outdoor scenes with birds and cars driving by. Even the action that takes place toward the end and features a number of gun shots seems a little subdued, again taking place on the front side of things, with no oomph to the back. David Kitay's score and the selected soundtrack are nicely complimented but certainly won't give your setup a good seeing to.

Extras

I would have hoped for a special edition release, at least with an audio commentary and customary trailer but these have been unfortunately neglected so what we are left with is:

Deleted and Alternate Scenes
There are three scenes to access here, each running for approximately 2 minutes. First up is the Santa Trainer Scene which sees Willie attending Santa school, much to his boredom. Secondly is Willie Leaves Department Store. This is made up of three different takes of the same scene; it could have been placed in the outtakes section. Thirdly is Screaming Baby. This one is a little annoying (no doubt deliberately so) and is a welcome axed piece from the film.

Behind the Scenes Special
This feature runs for nine and a half minutes and is an electronic press kit. There are interviews with cast and crew members and various clips, including outtakes and scenes from the film.

Badder Santa - Gag Reel
One and a half minutes of on set goofs that are edited together very swiftly. A lot of stuff that is in this clip actually features in the film so it doesn't have a whole lot to fall back on.

Outtakes
Running for four minutes this features some nice moments that include on-set screw ups and best of all some excellent improv from Bernie Mac and John Ritter.

One of the early announced features was that this release would include a tribute to John Ritter. For whatever reason it never surfaced, which is a shame. Of further note, several online retailers are still advertising this as having the tribute feature, so just bear in mind that it hasn't appeared on either R1 DVD release of the film.


Overall

As a general rule I'm not a big fan of crude comedy, at least stuff that is tired in my opinion. I abhorred American Pie, loathed Road Trip and was disappointed by South Park: the Movie, to name a few. For some reason I absolutely love Bad Santa because even though it features a grown man pissing his pants, eating like a pig and enjoying anal sex with large woman I never found this to be over the top. It is obscene but hilariously so and the driving force that is Santa at his utter despicable, worst is such a joyful experience that I can guarantee it will be played every Christmas in my house. This now sits at the top of my all time favourite Christmas movies, alongside Die Hard.

Film
9 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
5 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

Last updated: 18/06/2018 09:22:16

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