12 Ways of Christmas: #4 ‘Bad Santa’

Bad Santa Billy Bob Thornton Bar costume

Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. Why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when is giving in to peer pressure a bad thing?

With little rhyme or reason, check in every day from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.

Which Bad Santa are we talking about? The A.V. Club has debated the merits of the theatrical, director’s, and extended cuts, but each cut offers its own balance of character and story against a variable glass of laughs. Whether that glass is half full — the raunchier, chubbier BadDer Santa — or half empty — director Terry Zwigoff’s leaner cut — there are plenty of options available. Having revisited BadDer Santa ad nauseum for the past five or six Christmases — with a glass of Scotch and a plate of leftovers over which to slobber under our measly four foot tree — Zwigoff’s cut seemed ripe for analysis. At the least, I was reluctant to pop in the original theatrical version and revisit the awkward family van ride home that induced in 2003.

Instantly recognizable in Zwigoff’s version is an absence of laughs, giving the audience too much to chew on. Gone is the sardonic, blunt voiceover from the interior of a Milwaukee bar on Christmas Eve, grumbled over like a champ by Billy Bob Thornton’s pervert alcoholic Willie. Gone is Thurman ‘Kid’ Murman’s fighting session with Willie and elf accomplice Markus (Tony Cox). Compared against the likes of BadDer Santa, the director’s cut swings the pendulum so far away from its overstuffed counterpart that the humor is sapped from its story. We can glean a lot from Willie’s terrible moral center, from the fact that his Santa gig is just a setup to rob malls each year; its much harder to infer actual humor.

Bad Santa kid drunk Billy Bob Thornton bed

By comparison, BadDer Santa is a looser story, but its laughs make up for wonky characterization and a blips in pacing. As lowball as nut shot humor is, Willie and Markus bonding with the Kid through punches to the groin is golden and encapsulates the appeal (or disgust) of the script’s slant. To an even greater degree than Die Hard’s mashup of high stakes violence and minted orchestral classics, Bad Santa drains nearly all holiday sentimentality from its characters. The most enthusiasm toward Christmas comes courtesy of bartender Lauren Graham, who only has a messed up fetish for fucking Santa Clauses. Or is it Santa Clausi? In fact Bad Santa, in all versions, might not qualify as a Christmas movie without the Kid.

See, the Kid is the real emotional center of Bad Santa, not Willie and his gradual path to moral redemption. The Kid’s snot-faced naivete and innocence, so distanced from the supporting cast’s cynicism, fosters change in Willie and Sue as people. In a hilarious early scene, Willie drives the Kid home from the mall, returning a favor to the Kid after he bails Willie out of a parking lot rape. Willie’s been completely desensitized to any Christmas magic, so his juxtaposition against the Kid’s wide-eyed curiosity makes an exchange about stabling reindeer all the more funny. Willie gets the Kid home, as promised, but he doesn’t leave empty handed, clearing out Mr. Merman’s safe and taking his car.

Willie’s reflex to drink himself to pissing, to plow strange women in the rear, and to lash out at others crumbles away thanks to the Kid. His attempts to change as a person wouldn’t work if he were knitting Christmas stockings or singing carols. But he doesn’t do any of that, much to writers Glen Ficarra  and John Fequa and the (rumored) Coen Brothers’ credit. Any holiday decorating largely comes via Lauren Graham’s surrogate mother, though Willie actually agrees to light the luminaries on Christmas Eve. His hilarious patchwork of the Kid’s destroyed advent calendar or a unique take on bologna tostadas feel genuine.

A long-discussed sequel to Bad Santa has yet to happen, and while I can see the studio’s appeal to capitalizing on the original’s fermented cult status, why? Bad Santa, at least the ones Zwigoff keeps his mits off of, is already an encapsulated package of Christmas raunch — a snow globe filled with stale beer and cigarette ash instead of water and snowflakes. If Die Hard is a holiday film for the hipsters, Bad Santa is the ideal choice for the most jaded. Now go fix us some sandwiches.

Way #1: Christmas Carol: The Movie

Way #2: The Santa Clause

Way #3: Die Hard

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