The Conversation is a feature at PopOptiq bringing together Drew Morton and Landon Palmer in a passionate debate about cinema new and old. For their twelfth piece, they discuss Terry Zwigoff’s irreverent entry in the holiday canon, Bad Santa (2003).
Re-watching the theatrical cut of Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa (2003) for the first time since its release, I began to realize how much of a difference those alternate DVD versions make (this analysis is of the theatrical version). Even today, almost every comedy is issued on home video in an “Unrated” or “Extended” version. There are several problems I have with this. First, unless specified, the director’s input on these versions is ambiguous at best. For instance, in the case of Bad Santa, the film was issued in three different versions; the theatrical and “unrated and extended” were released shortly after the film’s theatrical debut, while a director’s cut was released in 2007. To muddy the waters even more in this specific case, the director’s cut was three minutes shorter than the theatrical cut and ten minutes shorter than the extended cut (the blu-ray includes the extended and director’s cuts). In the years since the film’s release, Zwigoff has been open about the editorial battles fought over the film — the Weinstein Brothers recut the film and filmed sequences without Zwigoff’s input to make it more “mainstream” — and it has become increasingly clear that the theatrical and extended versions are incredibly compromised. I am saddened, but not terribly surprised, that he is not slated to direct the forthcoming sequel.
I have long watched the “unrated and extended” version because that was what I owned on DVD, and there are a few great jokes that have been re-integrated — Willie at a strip club and tipping with scratched off lottery tickets is my favorite — and I have seen the director’s cut once or twice. Having seen them all, Zwigoff’s impulse is right on target. The non-director’s cuts make a distracting and bizarre tonal jump towards the third act of the film. For those who have not seen Bad Santa, this cinematic advent calendar of debauchery presents Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), a seasonal Santa who drinks on the job, “hustles” women’s big and tall sections for anal sex (“You ain’t gonna shit right for a week,” he tells one woman), and with the help of his elf accomplice, Marcus (Tony Cox), robs the department store blind on Christmas Eve. As Marcus points out when he finds Willie at his lowest, “Every year, less reliable. More booze, more bullshit, more butt-fucking.”
When Willie encounters a cherub-faced troubled child named Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), the cynical viewer’s spider sense begins to tingle. I can remember the first time I saw it and thought to myself, “Oh great. Here comes the character arc. He’s going to redeem himself by offering himself up as a bizarre mentor for the kid.” You see, there’s something refreshing to me about a black comedy in which the anti-hero seeks no redemption whatsoever and just exists in this contemptible zone of being. Again, I’ll turn to a quote from Marcus in which he describes Willie as “an emotional fucking cripple. Your soul is dog shit. Every single fucking thing about you is ugly.” The show Eastbound and Down strove for this in its first couple seasons, only to literally take its protagonist off a cliff and superimpose an arc of moral and ethical growth upon him. In that case it felt like a cheat, and so to in Bad Santa — depending on the version (especially the theatrical version) you watch.
First, Willie teaches Therman how to fight and beats the living crap out of his bullies. While this begins to reek of the redemption arc, it also stays in line with how the film has characterized Willie. Sure, he does something selfless, but it still remains morally reprehensible. By the end of the film, however, the needle has swung a bit too far in the other direction. His sexual relationship with a bartender with a Santa complex (Lauren Graham), which is flatly characterized throughout, and slight attraction to Therman blossom into a perverse version of a nuclear family in which Willie prepares “tostadas” of bologna and salsa (ick!) and attempts to bring a pink elephant stuffed animal home on Christmas Eve as the family sets the table for a feast.
It is the film’s climax, seeming too excessively out of tonal step with the rest of the film, where I begin to have a complicated interpretation. Allow me to briefly summarize: during the robbery, Willie is confronted by Marcus at gunpoint and about to be killed when the police show up and bust up the robbery. Evidently, Willie wrote a suicide note earlier that Therman mailed to the police. While the police storm the department store, Willie takes the pink elephant, gets in a police chase, and is shot repeatedly in front of Therman. In an epilogue voice-over, we are told that Therman is now in the care of the Lauren Graham character while Willie recuperates in a hospital and will soon be released after the police’s faux pas of shooting Santa. On one hand, we could easily rationalize this abrupt shift in sentiment extratextually as being one of the artifacts of the Weinsteins’ editorial tinkering (I have not listened to the commentary track on this one, so perhaps I’m completely wrong about this). It feels awfully “mainstream,” a ploy to redeem Willie and make him somewhat likable.
Yet, I can also see Zwigoff being ironic in this sequence. The overall excess of the climax bears a striking resemblance to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) in which the sociopathic Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), in a similar redemptive move, goes to “rescue” the child prostitute Iris from a den of pimps and perverts. The violence of the sequence is extremely graphic yet expressionistic — fingers are shot off, muddy brown blood covers Travis’s face, gunshots echo down hallways endlessly — and it ends with a wounded Travis passing out on a couch before transitioning into a God’s eye view of the scene as we discover Travis has survived and has received a letter of thanks from Iris’s parents. While the Bad Santa sequence lacks Scorsese’s emphasis on gore (Willie is shot maybe eight times without much bloodshed), it shares the swerve away from realism (How do Willie and Travis survive?), the God’s eye view of a tracking shot across the crime scene, and the letter reading epilogue.
Many viewers interpret the ending of Taxi Driver as being a fantasy of Travis as he succumbs to his wounds. After all, it is simply too illogical that he survives, that Iris goes home, and that Betsy will interact with him after taking her to a porno theater and stalking her. It feels fake and alarm bells go off in the viewer’s head. I would make the argument that Bad Santa’s intertextual allusions to Taxi Driver promote a similar reading. He didn’t make it off that doorstep alive and he did not, given the surprise of the police’s entrance, survive his encounter with Marcus in the first place. Perhaps this is an artifact of poor editing and not what the director intended, but we have to analyze the text that is there as it is presented to us. Intentionality only promotes one reading of many, and relying upon it as the final word is a fallacy. Without a doubt, the multiplicity of versions here complicates the critic’s role — but it also provides the perfect opportunity to discuss the substantial role editing plays on making meaning.
Terry Zwigoff threads a very thin and unenviable needle with Bad Santa, a film that seems to enfold within itself the existence of two perhaps incompatible movies. On the one hand, and in the most obvious sense, Bad Santa is a dark take on the holiday film, and this was certainly the film that the Coens ought when they hired Glenn Ficarra and John Requa to pen a script based upon an idea the Coens had about a mall-robbing, alcoholic Santa and his more level-headed elf partner in crime. And this is certainly the film Bad Santa was advertised to be: an indulgently yet self-consciously filthy subversion of a seasonal genre, rather appropriately set against what would become two holiday mainstays: Elf (Jon Favreau) and Love, Actually (Richard Curtis) in its November 2003 release. Two problems, I believe, emerged with this first Bad Santa.
To start, in the film’s now widely known history of compromise by Bob and Harvey Weinstein, its distributors essentially tried to sell a counterfeit “bad” Christmas movie, one that not only sought to redeem its character but, I would bet, sought something of a last-minute affirmation of the Christmas season as well — a trope so requisite to the holiday genre, but one that can be especially grating with respect to a holiday so commercialized.
The other problem with this film is the gimmick suggested by its title – that is, the self-consciousness with which this Santa’s “badness” is winkingly portrayed, with the comedic value of Willie’s behavior resting on the circuitous reference to a hallowed children’s folk figure endowed with purity. Such is the Santa, I would argue, of the Coens’ initial conceit for the film: a funny sketch of a person, but a fleeting sketch nonetheless. This is what had initially and, upon rewatch, still rubs me the wrong way about Bad Santa. While I welcome the subversive take on a renowned children’s figure whose identity is organized around consumerism as a reward for conformity, the self-consciousness of the film’s conceit always felt a bit disingenuous — a dedication to high concept indicated by a title that thankfully avoids the exclamation mark by which most of its profane dialogue is delivered. This film is essentially Bad Santa’s first act, and the concept wears quickly.
Zwigoff’s vision for Bad Santa resided precariously separate from both the Wiensteins’ bankrupt approach to convention and the Coens’ initial hook. Zwigoff reportedly toned down a bit of the Coens’ version and focused on several lighter character aspects of the narrative without, as described in the Coens’ reported words, the “American Pie” approach pursued by the Weinsteins. Zwigoff’s interest is clearly the character of Willie, and the director has little interest in making Willie a likable and charismatic character. He is an authentic sad sack perfectly realized by Billy Bob Thornton (I struggle to envision Jack Nicholson or Bill Murray in this role, each of whom reportedly showed interest). Unlike many characters embodied by Thornton in the early aughts, Willie isn’t a smart-ass armed with witticism (although his cursing does sometimes have a nice punctuation to it, purportedly aided by the Coens’ ghostwriting). The only time in which he expresses confidence is his misguided but sometimes genuinely sweet pseudo-caretaking of Therman – an interaction that both enriches his character yet reinforces his sadness. If Willie weren’t Lauren Graham’s explicable object of affection, he would fit perfectly with the other thin-framed outsiders that dominate Zwigoff’s filmography from Robert Crumb to Steve Buscemi’s reclusive audiophile in Ghost World.
I like Drew’s comparison to Taxi Driver because it foregrounds these more substantive aspects of Zwigoff’s film. As a film about an alcoholic working-class criminal who finds a smidgen of purpose in endeavoring to see that some kid doesn’t follow quite the same path he did, Bad Santa’s driving interests as a character study of Willie would make it a fitting pairing alongside any ‘70s film about lonely male outcasts. Except in the ‘70s the title would have been more occupational to reflect this intent: Department Store Santa.
Bad Santa – at least in its theatrical version – never quite squares the circle between Zwigoff’s character study and the Coens’ and Weinsteins’ polarized approaches to high concept. But Zwigoff’s gradual development of Willie’s character works remarkably well, saving the film from being one prolonged joke. Released only a few weeks before, Elf offered a far less brash but similarly ironic take on the holiday season by finding comedy in a character that was too sincere. While a Christmas mainstay in my family, Elf falls apart by its Santa-saving third act, as the film’s too-little-too-late assumption of Buddy’s (Will Ferrell) sincerity becomes a bridge too far after building an entire movie based on our distance from it. Bad Santa affixes an even greater distance from the rituals and contrivances of the holiday season. Yet Bad Santa finds an arc almost entirely separate from its seasonal setting, portraying a character that gradually distances himself from the garish materialism that subsumes his own existence in a way that’s not really too far removed from the folk figure he so badly imitates. While its ending may be unbelievable and beyond Zwigoff’s intention, as a story of redemption, Bad Santa is so committed to its character that it damn near pulls it off.