Bad Santa vs. Elf — The Yin and Yang of Christmas Present

by M.C. Antil on December 20, 2010

On successive nights in December of 2003 I went to see two movies that had just been released.  Each was a Christmas comedy, but beyond that fact, Elf and Bad Santa couldn’t have possibly been more different from one another.

Will Farrell: Elf as man-child

I watched the former with some level of amusement, almost all of it owing to Will Farrell’s wonderfully over-the-top performance as a not-so-bright and literal-thinking man-child.  But once I got past Farrell’s wide-eyed exuberance, I was bored to death, waiting patiently for a moment of Christmas magic that never seemed to happen.

Then next night I found myself in the same multiplex, only this time the theater had less than half the number of people that had seen Elf just 24 hours earlier.  And given what would unfold before me onscreen, it now seems remarkable there were even that many.

Because Bad Santa was then, and remains to this day, a tough, if not impossible, movie for many people to sit through.  It challenges you every step of the way, and gives you little or nothing to cozy up to.  At times that night in the theater, there were literally three or four people laughing, while the rest of the house sat in what I can only determine was stunned silence.

Elf, meanwhile, greeted the audience at the door and invited us in like one of those old tug-at-your-heart strings, Currier & Ives-inspired beer ads, or maybe an Andy Williams/Osmond Brothers special; all warm and fuzzy and full of white teeth, faux nostalgia and gee-whiz, Bedford Falls-type holiday cheer.

That’s one of the reasons why Elf has become something of a cable staple, while Bad Santa remains little more than a cult favorite.  (Though truth be told, Bad Santa’s language is so brutal, and its subject matter so occasionally raw, that editing it for television has all but gutted its power and impact.)

Bad Santa: Rough around the edges, but long on heart

Bad Santa is, truly, the yin to Elf’s yang.  And as much as I eventually grew to love the former, I absolutely hated the latter when I first saw it, and do so just as much today. 

Because while Bad Santa was, and still is, brutally honest about what it is and what it hopes to achieve, Elf wouldn’t know honesty if it came down the chimney, wearing red, chain-smoking Luckies and bearing mini-bottles of vodka for all the good little boys and girls.

Whereas Elf desperately craves your love and affection, and will literally stop at nothing to get it, Bad Santa could give a flying you-know-what about who you are and what you think.

Every time you try to suspend your inherent sense of decency, recalibrate your seasonal expectations for human behavior, and/or wrap your arms around its seedy little story, director Terry Zwigoff’s film pushes you away, daring you to try that again.

Just when you think Billy Bob Thornton’s safe-cracking, anally fixated, f-bomb lobbing, fall-down drunk of a Santa couldn’t possibly do anything more reprehensible than he’s already done, he somehow manages to.

Bad Santa: The harder it pushes you away, the more it draws you in

And even when intellectually you’ve finally come to grips with the fact you’re watching a dark and dreary comedy — and start to believe it is only a dark and dreary comedy — Bad Santa suddenly pulls the rug out from under you, kills off one of its main characters, and somehow sends you free-falling into an even deeper, darker and uglier place than you’d been up to that point.

And therein lies the secret of the movie’s power as a Christmas fable.  Because just like Thornton’s angry, self-loathing and cynical-beyond-all-reason department store Santa keeps pushing away Lauren Graham’s wide-eyed and still-hopeful barmaid — the one with the impish smile, the taste for whiskey, and that precious little Santa fetish of hers — only to find the more he shuts her out, the more intrigued she is, so it is with us.  The more Bad Santa pushes us away, the more we find ourselves wanting in. 

And on top of all that, Thornton creates a fascinating character who turns out to be the perfect modern-day Scrooge; a guy who refuses to share with anyone, not so much his money, but his concern. 

After all, think about it: how can a film possibly try to convince us in a post-Reagan America — as Elf does — that Scrooge’s biggest sin is loving and hoarding material possessions, or that such greed is somehow bad?

Greed is good.  You know that.  I know that.  Hell, my ten-year old nephew knows that.  Plus it’s here to stay, along with working a full eight hours on Christmas Day, if need be.

And it’s been that way ever since the Eighties when our national conscience got hijacked by an entire generation of kids who embraced as their role model, not some dewy-eyed clerk like Bob Cratchit, but the Michael J. Fox sitcom character, Alex Keaton, a card-carrying Young Republican and serial pragmatist who before he did or committed to anything wanted to know one thing, and one thing only:  what’s in it for me?

A self-loathing, anally-fixated Scrooge for our times

By the time Gordon Gekko got around to that whole “Greed is good” at the end of the decade, his message was already yesterday’s news to all those budding free-market carnivores.  By then they’d moved beyond greed as an abstract and had started giving it shape and form, planting the seeds for a few decade’s worth of dot com mirages, complex derivatives, predatory mortgages and Ponzi schemes dressed up to look like hedge funds.

As a result, Elf is, at best, a painfully out-of-step anachronism, and at worst, a cynical attempt by its director Jon Favreau to manufacture a holiday “classic” by adding one part this and two parts that, then stirring in the obligatory by-the-numbers, lump-in-the-throat moment of awakening.   

Bad Santa, on the other hand, is a perfect Christmas story at the perfect time and place — just five minutes or so before midnight in the kingdom of the crumbling, near-bankrupt mega-mall in the far-off land of Debt.

Elf: A flaccid, feeble attempt at Capra-corn

In Bad Santa, Thornton’s version of Scrooge is not a workaholic skinflint. He’s an aging, disillusioned baby boomer trying like hell to kill what little sense of conscience and feeling remains in what he truly believes is his shattered soul.  And that’s why his character resonates so well today, unlike the plain-vanilla, man-who’s-lost-his-way character James Caan plays in Elf.

You want to change the world through a simple Christmas tale, like Dickens tried to way back when?  You don’t do it like Favreau, by staging some bullshit rally near Central Park, and then piling even more bullshit upon your original pile of bullshit by telling us the only way to keep the Christmas spirit alive, and to get Santa’s sleigh (and all those expensive presents he’s carrying) airborne, is to sing together as one.

C’mon, I lived in New York.  You get that many New Yorkers in one place, the only thing you might get them singing out together at the top of their lungs is “Let’s Go Yankees!”

And shame on Favreau for such a patently transparent and ultimately flaccid attempt at a Capra-like moment. 

Shame on him for doing little more than winding Farrell up and following him around with his camera. 

Mary Steenburgen: What might have been

Shame on him for relying solely on the remarkable Zoë Deschanel’s winning on-screen presence and her terrific singing voice for whatever emotion Elf’s painfully contrived climactic scene was able to muster. 

And shame on him for absolutely wasting Mary Steenburgen’s talent, as well as her character’s potential.

Can you imagine how much more interesting, relevant and flat-out entertaining Elf would have been if Steenburgen had played the family breadwinner, trying to balance motherhood, Christmas and her career, and the woefully past-his-prime and terribly miscast Caan had played a stay-at-home, de-clawed house husband?

You don’t change the world, or for that matter make a holiday classic, with bullshit, like Favreau tried to do. 

You do it with heart, like Zwigoff did.  And that’s why Bad Santa, for all its coarseness, spit and vinegar, is in my mind a minor Christmas classic, while Elf is little more than a bloated Saturday Night Live sketch. 

Bad Santa has heart.  And it’s got soul.   And in the end it is more than just a black comedy about a drunken lecher of a department store Santa.  It is the story of a broken man who’s lost all hope, as well as a lesson in how witnessing a child’s earnest and unshakable belief in something — anything — can mend, if only by the tiniest of degrees, even the coldest, most shattered and world-weary heart.

That’s how you change the world.  And that’s how you change a man.  You do it from the inside out; one heart at a time; one soul at a time. Just like Dickens taught us a century and a half ago.

And when a lump appears in your throat during any holiday tale of redemption — such as in Bad Santa when the fat little kid offers his new friend a blood-stained pickle wrapped in a bow — it’s best when it makes its way up from within. 

Because the alternative is to get that lump jammed down your throat, like Favreau tries to do time and time again in his cold, calculating and, for my money, virtually souless Elf.

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