Full disclosure: I haven’t seen Bad Santa: The Director’s Cut. I suppose I should, in a show of solidarity for unsullied visions, regard it as the definitive version, particularly considering the wanton meddling, interference and upset Harvey Weinstein has caused filmmakers over the years. But the sad fact is, director’s cuts aren’t always the best version, and producer power sometimes – sometimes – can be a positive rather than negative influence. I’d doubtless watch the Director’s Cut if it was on hand, but I’ve been very happy with both versions of Bad Santa I have seen, and feel no urgent need for an additional take tipping more towards Terry Zwigoff’s favoured misanthropy over the life-affirming strains imposed on the original release.
But there’s also a full disclosure part two. The version I own is Badder Santa, the extended cut, and I haven’t visited the original release since it was in cinemas. Again, however, this isn’t really the negative some have made out. Sure, the added Florida episode could happily have remained on the cutting room floor, but otherwise, the picture doesn’t feel like it’s had extraneous material inserted to diminishing effect.
Bad Santa’s genesis is one of nigh-on infallible filmmakers (the Coen brothers) taking their idea to a couple of occasionally inspired screenwriters (Glenn Ficarra and Jon Requa, most obviously so with I Love You, Phillip Morris): “We wrote a really crass script, then the Coen brothers added a bunch of crass jokes”. The New York Times piece suggests disagreements between the brothers and Zwigoff on casting – in particular of Tony Cox as criminal associate and Santa’s elf Marcus Skidmore, and Brett Kelly as horrifically named Thurman Merman – and even though most of their opinions are related by Bob Weinstein, and when Zwigoff refers to the producers (the Coens we exec producers) he most likely means Bob and Harvey, he also confirmed that Joel and Ethan didn’t want Cox (“They said that they couldn’t see the guy being black”).
Certainly, the response to the test screenings – reshoots – was pure Harvey and Bob. These came courtesy of Todd Phillips, now an “auteur” in his own right thanks to Joker. Bob takes the view “we put in a little heart” by adding scenes regarding Thurman’s Advent calendar and teaching Thurman how to box. The latter of which, I could happily lose, the former I rather like. The Coens, according to Zwigoff, hated it (“Well you tried to make this film into American Pie. It’s a piece of shit now”). Zwigoff admits, however “A lot of what they shot they tested and it didn’t work so they got rid of it anyway. Then I got to work to push it closer to my original version. It was damage control at that point”.
The main surprise for me was that Zwigoff’s version didn’t have Willie (Thornton) die at the end, since Bad Santa’s denouement seems set up for exactly that kind of sour note (and I’d wondered about it ever since its original release, knowing there had been frictions). Mostly though, when I watch Bad Santa, I’m too mirthfully engaged to speculate whether a darker version would be a better one; the death of Gin (Bernie Mac) is nasty enough as it is, without Zwigoff’s preferred added twistedness. Thornton meanwhile – who admits to getting hammered on the shoot, which Zwigoff understandably found something of an ordeal – is absolutely magnificent in the role of “an eating, drinking, shitting, fucking Santa Claus”, and I can’t imagine the Coens’ choice of (the unavailable) James Gandolfini would have achieved the level of dyspeptic levity he does.
And yes, I like the way Willie thaws in the face of the twin influences of the kid and Sue (Lauren Graham). It isn’t as if he ends the movie singing Joy to the World. His interaction with Kelly, who is an amazing combination of the tremulously sensitive and unreadable, is both hilarious and touching (his response to “Because you went to the bathroom on mommy’s dishes?” might be the moment of the movie). Thurman responds to Willie’s sustained hostility with endless questions about his Santa duties (“Things are all fucked up at the North Pole” Willie explains of his stay at Thurman’s house) and only reveals quite late on that he knows full well Willie isn’t Santa. And the catharsis of Willie beating up the bully is both genuine and perverse (really believing his act of violence means he might have turned a corner in life).
Willie’s back and forth with Marcus is equally funny, just much more caustic (“Your soul is dogshit. Every single thing about you is fucking ugly” tirades the elf at one point). Cox manages to steal scenes wholesale from Bernie Mac’s “lousy, leather-faced, frog-eyed motherfucker”, no small order, but Mac’s onto a loser generally here (and was allegedly even more so in cloning centres), having to share scenes with John Ritter. Who, in his last role, gives an all-time great turn as Bob Chipeska (“He’s not going to say fuck stick in front of the children, is he?”), queasily shrinking from any sensitive language or subjects in the most pungent manner.
If Bad Santa really were like American Pie, it wouldn’t have the longevity it does. Yes, it’s very crude, and very dirty, but it’s the waft of redeemable nihilism that ensures it stands apart. That, and it’s very creative in how very crude and very dirty it is.