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Bad Santa: Director's Cut

Comedy, even more so than beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If you're the kind of filmgoer who cringes at the crude, shrinks away from the profane, and prefers your humor on the G-rated, sweetness-and-light side, then read no further — 2003's Bad Santa is most definitely not for you. But should you be the sort who can appreciate cynical, over-the-top, vulgar comedy, then you may find yourself gasping for air over this pitch-black holiday anticlassic. Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie, a very, very bad Santa indeed. A self-destructive, incontinent, sex-addicted drunk, Willie has just one talent — he's a world-class safecracker. Every holiday season, Willie and his partner, the diminutive Marcus (Me, Myself & Irene's Tony Cox) play Santa-and-elf at a different high-end department store, then rob the joint on Christmas Eve. The story came from Joel and Ethan Coen, who executive produced, springing from the idea of "a Santa who's bad and changes." But much of the pleasure of watching Bad Santa comes from ways in which the film mutilates the expected holiday-movie story arc — sure, Willie befriends a lonely boy (Brett Kelly), but as opposed to the usual preternaturally clever, exceedingly photogenic urchin, this kid is fat, slow and creepy-weird. And yes, Willie meets a lovely young woman (Lauren Graham) who likes him despite his nasty ways — but the woman's a bartender with a kinky Santa fetish. And while Willie does develop a sort of affection for this kid whose house he's moved into uninvited (under the nose of the boy's oblivious, senile grandmother, played by Cloris Leachman), don't expect the usual act-three change of heart where the curmudgeon turns into Mr. Nice Guy — because Willie's just as self-absorbed, foul-mouthed, and unrepentant by the time the film reaches its take-no-prisoners conclusion. That Willie is even remotely palatable, much less side-splittingly funny, is partly due to a brilliant performance by Thornton, who seems to be channeling all of our most evil thoughts and impulses, and then amplifying them ten-fold, playing Willie as a miserable man with absolutely no internal mechanism for applying the behavioral brakes. But most of the credit has to go to director Terry Zwigoff, whose genuine affection for oddballs and miscreants made Crumb and Ghost World just as bafflingly sweet — Zwigoff has a genius for mining the humor in self-loathing, and he somehow makes even the most unpleasant characters downright lovable. In its own crass way, Bad Santa is a sort of modern-day take on the classic W.C. Fields comedies, with Willie-as-Santa having to put up with "a bunch of screaming brats pissin' on my lap thirty days out of the year" as he drinks his way towards Christmas Eve, Marcus becoming increasingly concerned that Willie's behavior will lose them their gig, and the store's manager (a hilariously prissy John Ritter, in his last film role) and store detective (Bernie Mac) ready to bring the hammer down on Willie's shameless antics. Bad Santa, with its wall-to-wall profanity — including Thornton swearing, often, at children — and vulgar situations, won't be to everyone's taste. In fact, it may not be to most people's taste, and it's certainly not appropriate for kids. But as a down-and-dirty alternative to cinema's other treacly holiday offerings, Bad Santa is a hilarious breath of stale, whiskey-and-cigarette-scented air.

*          *          *

Dimension/Buena Vista's "Bad Santa: Director's Cut" follows upon the original DVD release of the film, which arrived in both the theatrical version and a "Bad(der)" unrated version. This repackaged "Director's Cut" doesn't appear much different than the theatrical release — it sports an "R" rating and clocks in three minutes shorter — while the differences between either and the "Bad(der)" cut aren't monumental. The previous unrated version features about seven minutes of additional footage in the form of extended scenes — most notably two of the sex scenes, an alternate take of one scene with Willie leaving the store at the end of the night — and one entirely new scene showing Willie committing a robbery and then going to a strip club. Whether the inclusion of these bits, with their additional foul language, hip thrusting, etc., in the theatrical version would have jeopardized the film's "R" rating is questionable. The anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is bright and colorful, while the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is excellent, although this is hardly a film that gives the speakers a workout. New to this edition is a commentary track by director Terry Zwigoff and editor Robert Hoffman, while returning from the original editions are four deleted/alternate scenes (including one very funny scene with Sarah Silverman leading a "Santa training" session), a "Behind-the-Scenes Special," which doesn't even begin to hint at the vulgarity of the final product (10 min.), and outtakes (4 min.). Serious fans of the film will probably want to keep the "Bad(der)" version around. Trailers for other Buena Vista releases, keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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