| Black comedy is among the forms of comedy, very likely the most
difficult and most under appreciated. There exists audiences who are
offended by the taboo topics tackled by black comedy, but if done
properly, I find it to be the funniest form of comedy in existence. Let s
face it; it is fun to laugh at what we are not supposed to find funny.
Over the years through cinema history, black comedy has always been a
tough sell, beginning with the film adaptation of the famous play Arsenic
and Old Lace (1944). The tale of two old ladies who kill elderly
gentleman and bury them in their basement was a massive success on
Broadway and was a natural to be filmed. Indeed they did, very well I
might add, but the film was met with lukewarm reviews, as movie audiences
did not warm to the idea of two lovely old dears committing murder on a
regular basis. Charlie Chaplin would attempt a black comedy with Monsieur
Verdoux (1947) and though brilliant, be met with the most savage reviews
of his career.|
Stanley Kubrick took the ultimate risk in 1964 with his black
comedy about nuclear war and the end of the war Dr. Strangelove (1964)
made at the height of the Cold War and just shortly after the
assassination of President Kennedy. The film marked a new dawn for
American cinema, launch Kubrick as perhaps the most important and
original filmmaker of his time, and made it clear that if done properly,
black comedy could be successful.
In the years to follow, we have had many successful black
comedies, among them Harold and Maude (1972), The Life of Brian (1979),
Prizzi s Honor (1985), A Fish Called Wanda (1988), The War of the Roses
(1989), The Player (1992), Natural Born Killers (1994), To Die For
(1996), Fargo (1996), Trainspotting (1996), Wag the Dog (1997), Bulworth
(1998), Very Bad Things (1998), Election (1999), Wonder Boys (2000),
Nurse Betty (2000), and Death to Smoochy (2002) all successful in one way
or another, and if not, they are bound to be re-discovered in years to
come. The trick to being a true black comedy is to remain black right to
the very end, to remain true to the art and present audiences with a dark
and twisted ending that serves the story. Think of the end of Dr.
Strangelove (1964) where the Americans drop the bomb on Russia and a
pilot rides the bomb all the way down like a bucking bronco. Perfect.
In Badder Santa (2003) the extended version of Bad Santa (2003)
essentially the same film with some longer sequences, we are presented
with the institution of Santa Claus and Christmas, and then watch in
horror and with giggles as the filmmaker tear them apart.
Billy Bob Thornton is superb as Willy, a department store Santa
who poses as the jolly old man with his sidekick, a homicidal dwarf named
Marcus (Tony Cox) posing as an elf, with plans to rob the store on
Christmas where they will get a nice haul allowing them to holiday the
rest of the year until Christmas. They move around America pulling these
jobs with great success, which is something of an accomplishment because
Thornton s character is quite despicable. He swears at the children and
their parents, drinks heavily, is dirty and unshaven, willing to have sex
with any woman who will, and is disrespectful and nasty to those whom
have hired him. Into his life comes a little boy, overweight but with the
face of a chubby cherub who believes he is Santa. The child follows him,
worshipping the ground he walks on, and eventually when he realizes
someone is on to him, he moves into the child s home where he lives with
only his senile grandmother. It turns out his father is in prison doing
time for embezzlement, and the mother is long gone, so the lonely child
latches onto Thornton s Santa as a friend, his only friend it turns out.
His life is further complicated when an amiable bartender, nicely
portrayed by Lauren Graham of television s Gilmore Girls fame, falls for
him and begins to make his life a little better.
All seems well for the criminal pair to pull off another major
heist when they find out the store detective is onto them. He does his
homework, some research and finds out that these two rob a store every
Christmas Eve, setting themselves up in cash and merchandise for the next
year, and when the money runs out they target another store. As portrayed
by Bernie Mac, the detective has no plans to turn them in, choosing
instead to let them pull off their robbery at which point he will take
half for himself and get out of the store detective business. Willy is
outraged that he will have to share the money with this man, but Marcus
cuts a deal, with other things in mind.
Understand that nothing in this film is as we have ever seen it
before in a Christmas film. Thurman (Brett Kelly) called kid through
almost all of the film is not your typical movie child. He is overweight,
picked on, a stalker who seeks out this Santa after hours, and is quite
willing to have the man move into his home. There are no warm moments
between the man and the boy, and the ending is the most un-Hollywood
ending one would expect for a Christmas film. Is Thornton s character
saved? Sort of, but not the gushy type of saving we have come to expect
from the movies.
Badder Santa (2003) is hysterically funny, but admittedly not for
all tastes. There are some institutions simply too sacred to poke fun at
and no doubt some viewers will have a hard time watching Thornton as
Willy as Santa. He is every parents nightmare as a department store
Santa; rude, obnoxious, opt to cop a feel of the good looking mom, and
quite likely to throw the kids across the room should they annoy him. It
is a daring performance because the character is so intensely nasty and
dislikable, yet Thornton makes it work in every single frame of the film.
He loathes himself, that much is clear, and in the boy and bartender he
gets a feel for what might have been had he not chosen this life. Does it
change him right away, no, but it gets him to thinking and gives him a
chance to feel good about himself. The boy is deeply attached to him, and
though Thornton s character does not initially return the emotion, by the
film s end he is indeed feeling something for the little guy.
Jack Nicholson is said to have coveted this role, but could not
get out of his commitment for Something s Gotta Give (2003) thereby
losing the chance to make the film. Thornton stepped in and gives the
best performance of his career. Imagine tackling this role knowing that
you were likely going to offend just about every parent seeing the
picture?? He is quite extraordinary in the film, dominating every frame
he appears in, bringing to life a deeply bitter and sad character. He
seems to relish portraying this mean spirited character, giving him an
energy that is dark and vicious, as he slips deeper into depression and
drowns it with booze.
There are strong supporting performances from Bernie Mac as the
conniving store cop, Lauren Graham as a bartender with a strange Santa
fetish, Tony Cox as a murderous dwarf, Cloris Leachman as the child s out
of it grandma, the late John Ritter as the manager of the store, and best
of all, Brett Kelly as the wide eyed little boy who has Santa living with
him. There is genuine chemistry between Thornton and Kelly but not the
sort we are used too. Both give terrific performances.
Terry Zwigoff, who helmed the brilliant Ghost World (2001) has
created a Christmas movie no one will ever forget but I bet few people
will ever admit to enjoying. I will. In fact, I laughed out loud often
through this film because I could not believe what the filmmaker and his
performers were accomplishing! Zwigoff takes comedy to the blackest level
it has ever been with this film, delivering a nasty picture that is
deeply funny and eventually very moving without ever be sentimental. It
is n fact there is nothing remotely sentimental about this film, which is
what makes it so brilliant.
The version I screened was Badder Santa (2003) which makes use of
additional footage not used in the theatrical cut. What it adds up to is
essentially extended scenes, very little in the way of new material. The
picture is presented in widescreen, but there are very few extras. Man
what I would pay to hear Billy Bob Thornton discuss playing this part on
an audio commentary!!
As it is we have the film, which is and should always be the main
One of the finest comedies I have ever seen, and certainly a
landmark among black comedy.