Bad Santa

Year: 2003
Studio: Columbia/Disney
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Bernie Mac, John Ritter

Anyone remember the freedom Hollywood enjoyed in the comedy heyday of the 1980s and 90s? There were no sacred cows studio executives and directors wouldn't slaughter in the name of laughs.

Depicting the military as a bunch of layabouts not above stealing top-secret equipment and going AWOL in order to get laid (Stripes, 1981) was fair game. Ned Kelly director Gregor Jordan tried the same thing last year with Buffalo Soldiers and was so hamstrung by studio-imposed edits so as not to present the US army in a bad light it ended up a euthanised and unfunny mess.

In 1993's Dave, Kevin Kline plays a guy who looks uncannily like the US President, and is convinced to stand in for him long-term after the real Commander in Chief lapses into a coma shagging his mistress.

The mildly funny (but nonetheless razor sharp) 1992 Eddie Murphy vehicle The Distinguished Gentleman dealt with the orgy of corporate bribery that is the US Congress.

Can you imagine any film so satirical of the US government or political process getting made nowadays?

And it's not just the government or military that's off limits in the 21st century, image-paranoid world. Both Mel Gibson and rookie director Brian Dannelly (of current release Saved!) have felt the savagery of religious conservatism for depicting Jesus Christ and the modern church respectively - before anyone had even seen the films themselves.

Another area you just don't joke around with in our skittish modern era is children. Not when there are sharp-clawed paedophiles waiting around every corner and the Internet is nothing but a cauldron of bomb making recipes and porn ready to warp their precious minds.

By extension, you don't mess around with any of the institutions our kids hold sacred – especially if you're being funded by Disney.

Some high level exec saw an early cut of Zwigoff's Santa suit conman comedy and panicked. They quickly threatened to pull out unless rewrites and reshoots were made, and even after that, they virtually disowned it, leaving production company Dimension films to distribute it themselves (Columbia Tristar taking up the duty in several other territories, including Australasia).

So Bad Santa languished in Disney's vault for almost a year – supporting cast member John Ritter's sudden death in September last year shows how long ago it was filmed, despite it being his final role.

Billy Bob Thornton fills the shoes that were reportedly offered to Bill Murray as Willie, a bumbling, profane, alcoholic loser. He runs a yearly scam with 'friend' Marcus (dwarf Tony Cox, with whom he shares a mutually hateful relationship) getting a job as a department store Santa, Marcus the helper elf. The scam is learning the alarm codes to the building and – just before Christmas – cleaning it out and disappearing into the night.

Willie's part is merely to play the role while Marcus does the brainwork behind the scenes, but he makes it very hard on his partner by screaming abuse at kids, turning up to work drunk or getting involved with loose women.

Bad Santa centres on the year of Willie's combined undoing and redemption, featuring the characters that surround him and Marcus in their final year on the job. Bernie Mac is a smooth, Isaac Hayes-like head of security for the store, John Ritter the timid personnel manager, and Lauren Graham is the babe who (in the film's biggest stretch of credibility) falls in love with this foul-mouthed deadbeat simply because of a Santa Claus fetish.

But the central relationship is between Willie and the terminally nerdy fat kid (The Kid) whose house Willie cons his way into while he's on the lam, and who believes Willie is the real Santa Claus despite his irreverent ways.

Despite all the controversy, Bad Santa is at its core similar as almost every other Christmas movie in that it ends up being about the true meaning of Christmas, which Willie learns through his exposure to The Kid's innocence.

And that's not a spoiler; you know from the minute you sit down that's what Bad Santa will be about. The producers just want you to enjoy it for the comic possibilities of a drunken loser employed as a Santa Claus exposed to queues of bright-eyed tots.

The film's only downfall is that there isn't much on offer. It might have been a more successful short film, or if more story was fleshed out of the supporting cast. The comedy is there, but it starts to feel like a bit of a one joke gag after awhile, little happening to freshen the proceedings.

Of course, in this age of re-releases and DVD, Disney might have done Dimension films a favour – Bad Santa will invariably have a bigger audience once it's released to the home market, and the US DVD release has already been called Badder Santa, promising an uncut version. Maybe that'll give Zwigoff and Thornton the success they would have liked. Bad Santa has been reigned in, and you can see it.

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