Ah, Christmas is in the air -- the soothing sounds of holiday music, the whiff of freshly cut evergreen, the rustle of presents shaken ever so carefully on the tips of children's fingers, and... the belches and inane ramblings of a drunken St. Nick? In 'Bad Santa,' director Terry Zwigoff ('Ghost World,' 'Art School Confidential') turns his cynical indie lens to one of the most beloved traditional holidays of the Western world. But as you might expect, his Christmas doesn't smell like gingerbread or sound like silver bells -- instead it's just an average day for a group of people who aren't distracted by the cheery hustle and bustle of the crowd.
Meet Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), a down-on-his-luck conman who partners with his diminutive friend Marcus (Tony Cox) each year to rob a shopping mall. To pull off their annual heist, the two criminals get jobs as Santa and his helper, stake out their target, and then take everything they can on the night before Christmas. But this year is different. When they set up shop in Phoenix, the self-destructive Willie is distracted by a young boy bullied for his weight (Brett Kelly), a bartender with a thing for men in Santa suits (Lauren Graham), and a store detective who wants in on the action (Bernie Mac).
'Bad Santa' certainly lives up to its namesake. In fact, I don’t think there's ever been a more despicable, obnoxious Santa Claus in film history. Drinking, smoking, degradation and humiliation are just Willie's surface attributes -- digging deeper reveals much seedier stuff. But while this gives the film a unique and compelling premise, its filmmakers seem so desperate to make Willie an unlikable character that they sap the film of any chance to rise beyond its setup.
Simply put, there just isn't enough soul to the mean-spirited characters for me to care about them. Yes, individual scenes often work well, and the actors are perfectly cast (particularly Thornton, who nails Willie's conflicted nature), but the sum total of these scenes and performances is exhausting. The lone light in the darkness is the young Brett Kelly, but his character functions as a catalyst rather than a legitimate source of transformation in the story. With no real redemptive material, 'Bad Santa' ends up feeling hollow.
While I enjoyed the cold wit of Zwigoff's 'Ghost World,' his 'Bad Santa' feels forced, joyless, and desperate for attention. I know that the film has many fans (Rotten Tomatoes shows critical consensus at 76% positive), but I'm not one of them. I'm happy to see a film break from convention and challenge genre lines, but I need a more significant endgame to justify my time.
(Note that this Blu-ray edition includes both the 'Bad Santa' Director's Cut and the 'Badder Santa' Unrated Cut. The Unrated Cut is five minutes longer and includes several raunchier scenes, as well as some subtle pacing and scene changes here and there.)
The Blu-ray Disc -- Vital Disc Stats
Disney presents ‘Bad Santa: The Unrated Version and Director's Cut’ on a single BD-50 Blu-ray disc. After hopping through a few high definition trailers, you'll automatically be sent to an on-screen menu that asks you to choose which version of the film you'd like to watch. Each version has its own menus and individual supplement lists specific to that cut of the film, but the only notable difference between the two is that the Director’s Cut features a commentary, while the Unrated Version does not. (More on this in the supplements section below.)
Instead of utilizing seamless branching for the two different cuts (as others have done in similar cases), Disney includes two entirely separate transfers on this disc -- a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded version of the 'Bad Santa' Director's Cut, and a 1080p/VC-1 encoded 'Badder Santa' Unrated Cut.
Bland and noisy, The 'Badder Santa' VC-1 encode looks only slightly better than an upscaled presentation of the previously-released standard DVD. Thankfully, the AVC Director's Cut looks a lot better, boasting vibrant colors, deep blacks, and crisp details. For a quick taste, jump to any scene where Willie has to deal with the variety of kids who come to see him and notice each glint of light on the Christmas tree, the fine velvety texture of his costume, and the individual strands of hair on his beard. Contrast is dead on, with natural skintones and comfortable white levels that make the image appear impressively three-dimensional. Source noise isn't a problem either -- I didn't detect any artifacting, edge enhancement, or pixelation (issues that plague each of the film's previous releases on DVD, as well as the Unrated Cut on this disc). There are a few shots that look a tad soft compared to the rest of the presentation, but in all cases it appears to be a product of the original print, and was rarely a distraction.
From a technical perspective, the VC-1 encoded 'Badder Santa' Unrated Cut seems to have been treated more like a special feature of this disc than a proper transfer of the film. Folks searching for the best the disc has to offer should look no further than the striking AVC encoded 'Bad Santa' Director's Cut.
(Note that the conflicting quality of the two transfers on this disc should not be interpreted as a technical fault or merit of either codec. The problems with the VC-1 encoded 'Badder Santa' transfer are a result of the transfer source, not the codec used to compress that source.)
This Blu-ray edition of 'Bad Santa' features two separate uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround tracks (48 kHz/ 24-Bit/ 6.9 Mbps). Unlike the video, I found each of the two tracks equal in quality, but unfortunately neither is given much to work with. To be sure, dialogue is clean and well prioritized, but proper dynamics seem to only exist when the soundtrack cranks out classical music selections; for the remainder of the film, the LFE channel is largely absent. Likewise, the surrounds are used from time to time, but there isn't a lot for them to do other than provide ambient support in crowd scenes.
Make no mistake, this front-heavy mix represents the movie and the original sound design well, I just wish there were more engaging moments that could have helped bring this demented reality to life. As is, these PCM mixes are virtually indistinguishable from the Dolby tracks on the DVD versions of the film.
Disney has kindly ported over all of the special features that accompanied the film’s three standard DVD releases ('Bad Santa,' 'Badder Santa: Unrated,' and 'Bad Santa: The Director's Cut'), but for a film that’s seen so many different incarnations on DVD, it’s surprising how slim this package ultimately is.
Like most comedies, 'Bad Santa' will induce fits of laughter in some and leave others shaking their heads. Although I happen to fall in the latter category in this case, I still admire the filmmakers’ efforts to break convention and push boundaries. This Blu-ray edition features two cuts of the film, with separate video transfers for each (one is poor while the other is exceptional), average PCM audio tracks, and a fair supplemental package. Unless you’re a huge fan of the film, I recommend giving this one a rent before making a final purchase decision.