Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Retro Review: Bad Santa

 Picking up where we left off last week, Bad Santa was released on November 21st, 2003. That puts it out of the range of "movies we saw on Christmas night" but is certainly something we saw leading up to the Holidays. If I remember correctly, that was the winter between jobs, so I had time to be around town and see several movies with friends. It is unclear to me whether I saw Bad Santa with Professor Murder or with Cranpire. I attribute this to the fact that we saw it in the same auditorium of the Crossroads 20 where I saw Ghost World twice, once with each person. Even though Ghost World played a full two years before Bad Santa, I am frequently conflating the memories thanks to director Terry Zwigoff.

 Going in, this was what we knew about Bad Santa: it was from the same director as Crumb and Ghost World, the Coen brothers produced the film and possibly wrote an early version of the story, and Billy Bob Thornton was the "bad Santa" in question. Beyond that, the anemic trailer did an okay job drawing us in:

 Thankfully, the vulgarity was immediately worth the price of admission. Bad Santa is a filthy movie, one that doesn't really cave in to the "bad guys turns nice" ending (a holiday predecessor to Gran Torino, I like to think), and we laughed our asses off. I'd share the litany of horrible things Willie mutters, but it's more fun to let you discover it for yourselves. Bad Santa is a spiritual sibling to The Ref, but one that laces its cynicism with grossly inappropriate behavior on all parts.

 It wasn't until later (following the existence of Badder Santa) that I learned Zwigoff was angry with the cut released by Miramax, apparently one that included narration and additional sequences he had nothing to do with. While I can imagine that I may have been able to objectively sit down and watch the Director's Cut of Bad Santa, I made the mistake of watching Zwigoff's Art School Confidential first, a movie I found to be pretentious and obvious in its criticism of "audience expectations." His shorter cut of Bad Santa removed everything that Zwigoff wasn't involved in, restoring the film to a disjointed, sloppy, sarcastic slice of nihilism that played like Kevin Smith's early cut of Clerks.

 Count me among the unwashed, illiterate masses if you like, but the Weinsteins did Bad Santa a service by tinkering with the director's vision. I hate saying that, but I take a similar stance with 20th Century Fox's theatrical version of Donnie Darko, made with the concessions of Richard Kelly (but against his desires). Zwigoff pushed his outsider characters too far beyond a film that's worth investing time in, and his cut plays like a Todd Solondz film without the laughs. Yes, feel free to stop and let that last sentence sink in. The self satisfied commentary where he lambasts the "dumbing down" of his film doesn't help the Director's Cut either, but that's neither here nor there.

 Anyway, I have one last anecdote about Bad Santa, or more specifically the Badder Santa DVD. I brought it home to show to my family in December of 2004, and my father was appalled at the rampart bad taste on display. The following year, I bought a copy of the DVD, put it in a shoebox surrounded by coal, and scrawled "Merry F'n Christmas from Bad Santa" and left it under the tree for him. For some reason, he's never opened the DVD. But he did keep the box. Strange.

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