In Match Cuts, we examine every available version of a film, and decide once and for all which is the one, definitive cut worth watching. This week, in honor of Jake Kasdan’s bad teacher movie “Bad Teacher,” we’re looking at Terry Zwigoff‘s bad Santa movie “Bad Santa.”
–Theatrical Cut (2003): 91 minutes
–Unrated Cut (a.k.a. “Badder Santa”) (2004): 98 minutes
–Director’s Cut (2006): 88 minutes
Career small-time criminals Willie “Tugboat” Soak (Billy Bob Thornton) and Marcus “The Prince” Skidmore (Tony Cox) perform an ingenious annual hustle: they get jobs as a mall Santa (Willie) and his elf (Marcus, who’s a little person), then rob their employer blind after everyone else goes home on Christmas Eve. Willie’s a good safecracker and a terrible human being: a cruel, vulgar, self-centered sex-addicted, alcoholic mess. In Phoenix for the holiday season, Willie finds his dark worldview lightening thanks to a Santa-fetishizing bartender (Lauren Graham) and an irrepressible Kid (Brett Kelly) who thinks Willie is really Santa Claus and offers him a place to hide out from the cops. But even if Willie finally gets into the Christmas spirit, he still has to contend with an increasingly annoyed Marcus and a suspicious head of mall security (Bernie Mac).
REASON FOR MULTIPLE VERSIONS:
Though Terry Zwigoff’s contract initially gave him final cut (at least according to this interview), he wasn’t completely happy with the version of “Bad Santa” that was released in the fall of 2003. And he was even less happy with “Badder Santa,” the unrated version that was released onto DVD to capitalize on the film’s popularity and to rake in a few extra bucks in the home video market.
For Zwigoff, “Bad Santa” was always less of an outlandish comedy and more of a darkly comic character study about a truly screwed up individual. But it wasn’t just up to him. Screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, executive producers (and uncredited rewriters) Joel and Ethan Coen, and distributors Harvey and Bob Weinstein all had a hand in shaping the finished product of the film. Thanks to the success and continuing popularity of the movie they all made together, Zwigoff got the chance to finally release his own version of the material in 2006, when his Director’s Cut came out on DVD.
KEY DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MULTIPLE VERSIONS (SPOILERS AHEAD):
The Unrated Cut of “Bad Santa” is about eight minutes longer than the Theatrical Cut, but really the only major difference between the two is an extended version of Willie’s time in Florida in between his two gigs as Santa. In both the Theatrical Cut and the Unrated Cut, Willie tells Marcus he’s done with their scam: he’s going to take his cash, open his own bar, and live the good life down south. Cut to Florida, where it looks like Willie has improbably made his dream come true…
In the Theatrical Cut, that scene’s quickly followed by one where Marcus calls Willie and tells him it’s time to regroup for another holiday season. In “Badder Santa,” Willie’s adventures in Florida continue a little longer: he steals a car by pretending to be a valet attendant; he breaks into a mansion and steals cash out of the safe; he spends the money on scratch-off lotto tickets he hands out as tips at a strip club. Eventually, after Willie takes one of the strippers home, Marcus’ phone call finally comes.
Most of the other differences between “Bad” and “Badder Santa” are pretty minimal: more vulgarities in Willie’s anti-child tirades, more thrusting in Willie’s sex scenes. The differences between those two cuts and Zwigoff’s Director’s Cut, though, are huge. And they begin right from the opening scene. Here is Willie’s introduction from the Theatrical and Unrated Cuts (and it’s got lots of profanity, so beware NSFWers).
Zwigoff’s version plays out exactly the same way except for one key difference: no voiceover whatsoever. According to the director, the scene was scripted to play silently, and the voiceover was only added in post-production because test audiences weren’t sure whether they should laugh at Willie or be disturbed by him — which was exactly what Zwigoff intended. On his DVD commentary, Zwigoff explains why he took the voiceover out of the Director’s Cut:
“I didn’t think the writing was on par with the rest of the script. The original writers didn’t have anything to do with it. It just told you what to think in a very clumsy, inelegant way… Billy Bob is a good enough actor to tell you what you need to know with just the expression on his face.”
The lack of a voiceover radically changes the scene. Without Willie talking about having to live in “shit-ass Mexico for 2 1/2 years for no reason,” you focus purely on the visual aspects of the scene. And they do convey a lot of information: it’s Christmas and everyone is happily sharing the holiday together except for the one guy in the Santa costume, who is drinking alone and watching the merriment with disgust and sadness. What was a very funny introduction becomes an almost existential meditation on loneliness.
Most of Zwigoff’s changes fall along these lines. There’s less of David Kitay’s original score and more classical music. Gone completely are subplots that lighten or soften Willie’s character (like the Florida bartender gag), along with any lingering whiff of sentimentality. If you’ve seen the Theatrical or Unrated Cuts you’ll remember a lot of schtick involving the Kid’s advent calendar. He first shows it to Willie the morning after he moves in. Willie later destroys it in a drunken rage, and later still when he’s started to take a liking to the Kid, he repairs and returns it. In Zwigoff’s cut, the advent calendar — even the words “advent calendar” — don’t appear once. Nor does the famous boxing scene, where Willie and Marcus teach the Kid how to defend himself from neighborhood bullies. As I recall, this was a big part of the “Bad Santa” television marketing campaign. This whole scene is gone from the Director’s Cut:
Wherever Zwigoff can make things darker, he does. A particularly good example comes during (SPOILER ALERT!) Bernie Mac’s death scene. In the Theatrical Cut, Marcus’s wife kills Mac’s Gin by running him over with their van. in the Unrated Cut, the van doesn’t quite do the job, so Marcus finishes him off by zapping his head with some jumper cables. In Zwigoff’s version, that doesn’t do it either, so Marcus drags a moaning, bleeding Gin behind the van, where his wife backs over his head. The van bounces with an enormous thud and Zwigoff cuts to a bubblegum balloon exploding all over a crying kid’s face. Merry Christmas!
IF YOU ONLY WATCH ONE VERSION OF “BAD SANTA,” WATCH:
The Theatrical Cut. In Zwigoff’s mind, “Bad Santa” is an ultra-dark character study. In my mind, “Bad Santa” is the “Bad Santa” that I saw in the theater in 2003. And that movie was a comedy, and a damn good one at that. I respect the hell out of Zwigoff for sticking to his guns and believing in his vision. And his vision of the movie is an interesting one. I’m glad we got to see his Director’s Cut. Fans of the original should definitely check it out.
But despite its creator’s best intentions, “Bad Santa” mutated out of his control into one hysterical movie. Zwigoff didn’t remove all the comedy scenes from the Director’s Cut because they weren’t funny; he removed them because they were too funny. Which, when you think about it, is kind of a crazy thing to do. I like those scenes (the one where Willie becomes a “bartender” in Florida, in particular). I even like the opening voiceover. Is it obvious? A little, yeah. But as delivered by Billy Bob Thornton, in a performance that really deserved an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, it’s also uproarious. And it’s not like the Theatrical Cut of “Bad Santa” is a tame movie: you still get to see Willie blaspheme, slander, fornicate, berate small children, attempt suicide, and piss himself (on more than one occasion!). “The Sound of Music,” this is not.
Anyway, that’s my preference. You can let your mood determine your viewing selection: Theatrical Cut for lighter evenings, Director’s Cut for those times when you hate humanity like cancer. Either way, you can definitely skip the Unrated Cut. The pacing’s sluggish, the timing’s off, and the whole experience doesn’t have the same snap as the Theatrical or Director’s Cuts. If you loved “Bad Santa” in the theater but were more lukewarm about it when you saw it again at home, odds are you were watching the Unrated Version. The Theatrical Cut’s my favorite, the Director’s Cut is fascinating and bleak. True to its title, the Unrated Cut is definitely the “Badder” Santa.
The Unrated Cut and Director’s Cut are available together on a single disc Blu-ray. Currently, the Theatrical Cut is only available on DVD. Which is your favorite cut of the film? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter!