Directed by Terry Zwigoff
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 1080p VC-1/AVC codecs
Running Time: 98/88 minutes
Audio: PCM 5.1 English; Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Release Date: November 20, 2007
Review Date: November 18, 2007
Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa is a perverse spin on cheery holiday feel-good pictures. It has some sporadic laughs, some momentary soft-heartedness despite its intense desire to shock, and the undoubted tendency not to know when a joke has been pushed too far. It can be funny, but it can also be tiresome. I experienced both while viewing the director’s cut of the movie. (Both the unrated cut and the director’s cut are offered on this Blu-ray disc and do present some notable differences, particularly in the ending which can be either ribald (the unrated edition) or whimsical as in the director's cut.)
Department store Santa-for-hire Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) and his accomplice elf Marcus (Tony Cox) have a beautiful scam going. They do their jobs each holiday season while casing the stores where they’re working. Then, on Christmas Eve, they rob the store blind (including not only expensive items from inventory but also the store’s safe usually jammed with cash from holiday sales). They’ve been at it for seven years without being caught, but their luck begins to run out in Phoenix, Arizona. Willie, despite every effort to remain the profane, lecherous, and hardhearted crook he is, comes under the spell of an eight year old (Brett Kelly) who’s unshakable belief in him as his friend, begins to take a small but telling toll on the bandit. Even his usual boozing and whoring don’t seem to be able to make him stop caring about this boy who’s mercilessly picked on by neighborhood bullies and is neglected by his legal guardian, a near-senile grandmother (Cloris Leachman) who can’t do anything but make sandwiches. Meanwhile, the store security manager (Bernie Mac) is on to their scheme and wants a cut of the action.
Never let it be said that Billy Bob Thornton didn’t get into his role for this movie. He is a walking abomination, made even funnier by his increasing incontinence as the day for the robbery gets closer and closer. By Christmas Eve, he’s hardly able to sit, let alone allow kids to rest on his knee to tell Santa what they want for Christmas. And partner Marcus is also more belligerent than ever, fed up with Willie’s lack of control and under tremendous pressure from his grasping mail-order wife (Lauren Tom) to pick up many high ticket items she’s been eyeing in the weeks leading up to the big robbery.
Thornton is funny and goes through more emotional shifts than one might expect he would knowing that his character is all about profanity, drinking, and having sex. Tony Cox steals all his scenes as the pint-sized dervish trying to keep the act from falling apart. Lauren Graham is as close as this movie gets to a romantic interest for Willie, and she’s fine while Cloris Leachman’s addled sensibilities shouldn’t be funny but are. Brett Kelly is an adorably innocent and winsome child, perfect for the role he’s playing. Bernie Mac has a couple of effective scenes while John Ritter (his last film role) has some amusing moments as the fussy store manager but whose presence ends too abruptly.
For all its profanity and attempts at indecency, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s script is actually nothing more than a variation on Heidi with curse words: sweet kid warms the heart of a crusty elder. Director Zwigoff stages some scenes very well (the bar scenes with Thornton and Graham, the final heist especially with some good sight gags with Cox, all of the scenes between Thornton and Kelly) and some scenes poorly (the climactic chase and shootout). And he works very well with all the actors. There isn’t a bad performance in the film. But the movie’s plot really requires a suspension of disbelief in these hyper PC-times in which we live. What department store would ever allow a Santa to continue who swears at the children in view of their parents, puffs on a cigarette in front of them with his beard off, or has indiscreet sex with women in the changing rooms with his Santa suit still on? It’s black comedy to be sure but even that must have believable limits. Bad Santa wants to be naughty and cool. The naughty part is covered, but the cool factor decreased for me as the film continued to run.
Both versions of the film are presented in 1080p, but the director’s cut is encoded with AVC while the unrated edition uses VC-1. Both versions share good color and some of the most accurate and true to life flesh tones I’ve ever seen in a video transfer. The picture is reasonably sharp throughout but without that ultra dimensionality that distinguishes the best high definition transfers. Each version of the film has been divided into 19 chapters, but the designations do go to different scenes depending on the version you're watching.
The PCM 5.1 track (48 kHz/24 bit, 4.6 Mbps) is well recorded but is decidedly front-centric. To extend the ironic contrasts in a film with a foul-mouthed Santa, the director has opted for a heavily placed classical music background score (Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Bizet) which does filter into the surrounds as does the Andy Williams Christmas music which accompanies Marcus’ wife on her shopping excursions. Otherwise, though, the sound design does not milk surround opportunities to the utmost.
An audio commentary by director Terry Zwigoff and film editor Robert Hoffman has a few dry spots but is otherwise a detailed recitation of facts about filming the movie in Los Angeles in summer, his great respect for the actors in the film, and the changes that had to be made to his first cut after test screenings which he loathed. The commentary is only available with the director’s cut of the movie.
A Roger Ebert interview with Zwigoff and Hoffman in 480i lasts approximately 28 minutes. Ebert, a huge fan of the director’s work including Ghost World which is also discussed, is very enthusiastic about the movie after seeing the unrated edition.
A behind-the-scenes featurette repeats many of Zwigoff’s stories about casting and directing the actors which were featured in the commentary. This 480i featurette runs 9½ minutes.
Three alternate and deleted scenes are included on the disc running 5 minutes. One of them, a Santa School briefing for potential Santas, is quite funny.
A gag reel for the unrated version (called Badder Santa) only runs about 1½ minutes.
Funnier are the 4 minutes of outtakes which are also included on the disc.
The standard movie showcase feature takes three scenes considered to be reference quality material from the film and provides easy access to them.
It’s loud, it’s gross, it’s funny. Bad Santa is not ideal family holiday fare, but for adults looking for something ribald that pushes the envelope in terms of un-PC lewdness, you can’t go wrong with this one. And the Blu-ray disc offers two versions of the film on the same disc with some decent extras, so it‘s not a bad deal.