In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Once upon a time, a movie came out, audiences saw it or didn’t, they liked it or didn’t, and that was that. An edited version—or sometimes an extended version, incorporating what we now call deleted scenes—might turn up years later on network television, but nobody considered that a viable alternative to the cut that had initially been released. Blade Runner kicked off the notion of the “director’s cut,” and for a while film buffs delighted in a handful of classics that had been meddled with by studio suits and could now be seen as intended by their respective auteurs. Great. Then came the flood of fake director’s cuts that amounted to little more than marketing ploys, a way to con fans into shelling out for yet another DVD. And now we have situations like Bad Santa, of which there are three distinct versions, encompassing all of the above: the theatrical cut; an extended, raunchier cut sometimes called Badder Santa (a blatant marketing ploy); and director Terry Zwigoff’s preferred cut. Which means that those who want to revisit it once a year around this time have to decide which Bad Santa best fits their anti-Yuletide spirit.
As a Zwigoff fan, as well as a staunch supporter of the artist’s vision whenever it butts heads with corporate interests, I’d very much like to recommend the director’s cut. But I can’t, because it’s just not as good. Nowhere is the disparity more apparent than in the film’s opening scene, which introduces Billy Bob Thornton’s misanthropic mall Santa sitting alone at a bar, accompanied by a Chopin nocturne. In both the theatrical cut and Badder Santa, this sequence also features sardonic, profane voiceover narration by Thornton, added by the producers against Zwigoff’s wishes. The director’s cut removes the internal monologue, allowing our first view of this sorry specimen to play out in a more sedate, visually oriented way. The voiceover rendition is below; if you don’t have the other handy, just watch this one twice, muting the audio the second time and substituting Chopin’s Nocturne Op.9 No.2 by itself. It’s really remarkable how much the presence or absence of the voiceover sets the tone for the entire movie.
In his audio commentary for the director’s cut, Zwigoff complains that the voiceover spoon-feeds the viewer, clumsily verbalizing what’s already apparent from Thornton’s miserable expression. What’s more, he likes that it’s not immediately clear whether or not you’re watching a comedy. (In Zwigoff’s version, there’s no laugh until Thornton vomits outside, in concert with the title’s appearance.) Were Bad Santa a subtle, carefully modulated character study with occasional jokes tossed in, that would be the ideal way to kick it off. But we’re talking about a movie in which Thornton falls asleep at work and pisses his Santa suit; in which it’s a running gag that he likes anal sex with fat chicks; in which he beats the living shit out of a teenager, punching him repeatedly in the face. Every sixth word is “fuck” or some derivative thereof. This is not sophisticated material, except in the broad, meta sense that it’s ridiculing holiday movies about unlikely bonds between adults and little kids. And the last thing it needs is a sophisticated opening scene.
It’s a common phenomenon that, given similar options, people prefer the one with which they’re more familiar. So it may just be that I got attached to the voiceover back in 2003 and have a hard time adjusting to its absence. But I’ve made an effort to appreciate Zwigoff’s version, and it just doesn’t work for me. In fact, it commits the very sin Zwigoff clearly means to avoid: sentimentality. His cut also omits various scenes (stuff involving the Advent calendar; Thornton teaching the kid to box) that make this Santa seem not quite so bad, and that’s understandable, even though I like those scenes, too. But look at Thornton here without the voiceover. He’s sad. When you’re not distracted by talk about being forced to live in shit-ass Mexico for two and a half years for no reason, it’s much clearer that he envies the folks around him, who are enjoying each other’s company while he sits there ignored and lonely. It’s a beautiful, melancholy opening for a completely different kind of movie, and if it’s meant as deliberate misdirection, I can’t say that the big reveal (him vomiting outside) serves as much of a payoff.
Plus, the film conveys the melancholy anyway. As is often the case, when I revisited the scene in preparation for writing this column, I found that I’d misremembered it slightly: In my head, the voiceover began more or less immediately, long before the camera finds Thornton sitting at the far end of the bar. I was surprised to find that over a minute elapses before it kicks in, during which time Zwigoff tracks very, very slowly toward the pub’s front window (with revelers and a Christmas tree visible) and then, once inside, pushes almost as slowly past all the beaming faces and animated conversations. The effect he was going for, of Thornton isolated, works just fine. Stretching it out for another minute-plus, as Santa stares at his hangdog face in the mirror and then gazes despondently at the others, is overkill. Even if the voiceover were added simply to reassure the audience that they’re allowed to laugh, it also prevents Bad Santa from initially coming across as something more akin to Zwigoff’s Ghost World, which it decidedly is not.
Ultimately, though, I think I just fundamentally disagree with Zwigoff about whether or not the voiceover is funny. Both times I saw Bad Santa in the theater during its initial run, audiences howled through it, from start to finish, and I was right there with them. Screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa had nothing to do with it, or so says Zwigoff, but whoever did write it—and it’s generally acknowledged that the Coen Brothers, who executive-produced, did a lot of touch-up work—succinctly encapsulated the general tone, from the creatively excessive profanity down to random grumbling about stuff like the bone chip in his ankle that’s never going to heal. The whole purpose of an opening-credits sequence (and this scene is designated as such in the draft I found online) is to give the viewers a strong sense of what they’re in for. “I’ve seen some pretty shitty situations in my life, but nothing has ever sucked more ass than this” does a much better job letting delicate flowers know that they’re in the wrong theater—while whetting everyone else’s appetite for the gleeful rudeness to come—than Thornton’s mournful mug and Mr. Chopin. I’m glad Zwigoff managed to get his version out there, but I’m even gladder to bypass it.