Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa is a one-joke movie, albeit a joke that professional reprobates like W.C. Fields or the young John Waters might have killed to tell: Billy Bob Thornton plays an extravagantly vile department-store Santa—violent, sodden, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking—who insults kids (along with their parents) when not pissing himself, puking in an alley, or attempting to sodomize plus-sized customers in the dressing room. Moreover, he’s a professional thief who, along with his dwarfish sidekick (Tony Cox), is preparing a Christmas Eve heist where he will rob his employers blind.
Set mainly in a Phoenix mall and replete with abusive seasonal muzak, Bad Santa not only articulates a bah-humbug hatred of Christmas but a sustained overall misanthropy. The movie’s premise was evidently advanced by its executive producers, those masters of cheer, the Coen brothers, but it’s keyed to the central performance. Thornton so inhabits the title role that it’s difficult to imagine that cutie pies Bill Murray and Jack Nicholson were earlier considered. Thornton has a dozen ways to hit bottom, none of which ask for the slightest audience sympathy. (Perhaps only Mickey Rourke of Barfly could have given a comparable interpretation.)
As befits a movie that enjoyed cult status virtually from the moment it premiered in late 2003, Bad Santa exists in multiple versions: There’s the original release, sanitized by anxious elves at then-Weinstein-owned Miramax; there’s the so-called Badder Santa, released on DVD the following summer, which claimed to restore a number of deleted scenes; and there’s the director’s cut, which appeared on DVD late last year and is now having its theatrical premiere. It plays this week at the IFC Center in tandem with another Christmas cult film, It’s a Wonderful Life. For once, the notion of the director’s cut signifies something other than auteurist delirium. This third Bad Santa may be the shortest version but, in every way, it’s the strongest. Zwigoff has acknowledged making a thousand different changes and these have resulted in a sharper, subtly more subtle film—if one can use that word to describe a comedy so scrofulous. To take one example, Zwigoff cuts the opening voiceover that had been added after preview audiences failed to grasp they were watching a comedy. Now it’s just Chopin during the credits with Santa getting hammered at the bar.
The most egregious aspect of Bad Santa‘s 2003 release version was the late-inning Christmas cheer the studio smuggled in to subvert Zwigoff’s subversion. What’s obvious from the director’s cut is that Santa’s rehab and his one or two good deeds were intended as the basis for a perfunctory happy ending—and thus a further slap in the face of public taste. Moreover, the two individuals whom Santa “helps”—or rather whom he is pleased to exploit—are both so psychologically damaged that they are willing to believe in any sort of Santa, even him. One is a fat, hapless, fantastically annoying schoolyard victim (Brett Kelly), whose white-collar father has been sent up for embezzling; the other is a Jewish barmaid (Lauren Graham) suffering from a permanent sense of Christmas deprivation. In the ultimate version of the movie she should be played by Billy Bob’s ex, Angelina Jolie, or, at least, her computerized form.