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With: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Lauren Graham, Bernie Mac, Brett Kelly, Lauren Tom, John Ritter, Ajay Naidu, Alex Borstein, Lisa Ross
Written by: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, with uncredited polishing by Joel and Ethan Coen and Terry Zwigoff
Directed by: Terry Zwigoff
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive language, strong sexual content and some violence
Running Time: 88
Date: 11/26/2003

Bad Santa (2003)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Santa Sleighs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Cursing -- or "cussing" as it's known in hillbilly circles -- is an art form. Only certain people can do it correctly. Take, for example, one scene in Terry Zwigoff's unbelievably funny new film Bad Santa.

A department store manager played by the late John Ritter has concerns about the new department store Santa he's hired. This surly and foul creature has -- within minutes of reporting to work -- used the term "f--- stick." Ritter tries to explain the story to the head of security, played by Bernie Mac, but has trouble saying the offending words. But Mac, once learning them, repeats them back perfectly, with proper emphasis and delivery.

Bernie Mac can curse, but this Santa is a cursing master. Witness the astonishing opening monologue (none of which I can repeat here) in which he explains his current predicament. He rarely uses anything but curse words in Bad Santa, even around children.

This movie may contain the most abundant and poetic foul language since Scarface or Glengarry Glen Ross. Parents take note: this is not a kid's movie. Not even the most sophisticated children should be allowed to see this movie.

Santa is actually Willie T. Soke (Billy Bob Thornton), a safecracker and a nasty drunk. He works in tandem with a midget, Marcus (Tony Cox), who plays Santa's poorly-costumed elf and security expert. Apparently, they don't make elf ears for African-Americans; so Marcus must wear pink-colored elf ears.

Together this team gets themselves hired on the cheap, serves out their Christmas duty listening to children's holiday wishes, then burgles the store after closing on Christmas Eve.

To avoid attention, he stays with a nerdy, overweight, eight year-old kid (Brett Kelly) who is cursed with unmanly curly hair and a perpetually runny nose. The kid lives alone with his clueless grandmother in a huge house, and so Willie makes himself at home.

The kid, whose actual name provides one of the funniest scenes in the film, looks up to this slovenly jerk. And though it's easy to see that he will eventually wear down old Santa, the film never turns sentimental.

Lauren Graham (TV's "Gilmore Girls") co-stars as a sexy bartender with a Santa fetish. Graham may be the film's only (minor) flaw; she's too warm and lovely. She doesn't look like she can really go slumming with this bad Santa and get away with it.

Zwigoff continues to distinguish himself as an American original. Whereas his last film Ghost World, was a beautifully designed, emotionally devastating and touchingly personal work, Bad Santa is more streamlined, more cut to the bone. It's an incredibly cold, mean work -- but with exactly the right tone of disbelief.

Zwigoff's assured touch redeems this film, which could easily have degenerated into something like last year's holiday fiasco Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights. When the Sandler character finds redemption, it's forced and phony, but Willie's redemption happens at just the right pace and for logical reasons.

Eight Crazy Nights was mean in an aggressive way, as if it wanted to viciously punish the audience. Bad Santa sides with the audience; it wants to shock us, but it keeps the shock at a slight distance, as if the filmmakers can't quite believe what they're showing us.

Indeed, that distance makes Bad Santa grow funnier with the passing of time. Scenes that make your jaw drop the first time around grow more humorous in retrospect. In recalling certain moments I have been laughing myself silly almost every day since I saw it more than a week ago.

Credit this strong screenplay to the writing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Cats and Dogs), plus an additional (uncredited) polish by Joel and Ethan Coen and Zwigoff. I know I said that Elf was the funniest movie I'd seen this year, but Bad Santa empties its bowels all over poor little Elf. God bless Terry Zwigoff for making the bravest films in America.

Bad Santa was released in two DVD editions, the 92-minute theatrical version and an unrated, 98-minuteversion, known as Badder Santa. Badder Santa extends some of the racier scenes from the original, notably the sex scenes, and adds a long sequence in which Willie steals acar, breaks into someone's mansion, clogs up the toilet, steals some money, goes to a strip club, brings the stripper home and tells her she smells like a "bum's nut sack."

I'm not sure if I like the scene; it's not all that funny and it makes less sense when Marcus (Tony Cox) calls Willie and invites him back to the Santa job. Willie isn't quite as desperate this time because he now has all that money from the safe. I would feel better if the movie were called "The Director's Cut" instead of the "Unrated Version." In any case, the disc also comes with outtakes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and a little 9-minute behind-the-scenes special. It's mastered in 5.1 Dolby Surround and is letterboxed in 1-to-1.85.

Update: It turns out that "Badder Santa" was nothing more than an evil marketing ploy, and that it's actually a disaster. It ruins the comic timing of many of the scenes (they go on too long) and uses footage that Zwigoff wanted cut out. It's not even remotely affiliated with anything Zwigoff had in mind. Thankfully he has been allowed to complete his official "director's cut," newly available on DVD. (See my new interview.)

Actually shorter than the theatrical cut, it eliminates anything vaguely "Hollywood," such as the opening narration (never heard again throughout the rest of the film) and training the Kid to stand up to the bullies. The movie is just as funny as ever, but more emotionally truthful, closer to the level of Ghost World. Still, I wish that the 91-minute theatrical cut could have been included on a second disc, or at least a selection of its deleted scenes. (There are deleted scenes on the new disc, but not all of them are included.) The new disc also includes bloopers and outtakes, and a very good director's commentary track.

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