Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Original Bad Santa

It's that time of the year where people inevitably list their favourite Christmas movies. While I like Miracle on 34th Street as much as the next guy, I'm generally more inclined to watch something a little bit less conventional. Films like Die Hard, Batman Returns, A Nightmare Before Christmas, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Mixed Nuts (home of the saddest sentence found on Wikipedia - "It was released to theaters in the United States on December 21, 1994, to neither critical acclaim nor commercial success"), The Muppet Christmas Carol and the majestic, poetic and downright masterful Jack Frost are all more likely to get spins in the lead up to Christmas than, say, White Christmas, Holiday Inn or even It's a Wonderful Life. What can I say, I prefer my Xmas a little bit twisted. I also have a big soft spot for Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, but that's surely more to do with the beautifully filmed setting than anything else.

Most people (myself included) seem to have a lot of time for Bad Santa, the hilariously offensive Terry Zwigoff from 2003 that starred Billy Bob Thornton as, well, a bad Santa. Still, as much as I like that film - which, amazingly, played at the Cannes Film Festival! - I can't help but prefer a film that came out ten years prior, but which gets only a scant amount of the respect. Ted Demme's 1994 black comedy, The Ref, is surely the Christmas film I watch more than any other. Like some some or hilarious convergence of a zippy, electrified screenplay and a collection of actors who know how to deliver it, The Ref is a film that never fails to put me into fits of guffaws. As I rewatched this last night I had to stifle my honking laughs so as to not awake the entire neighbourhood. Hardest of all is at this moment late in the proceedings:

"You know what I'm gonna get you next Christmas? A big wooden cross, so every time you feel unappreciated for all your sacrifices you can climb on up and nail yourself to it!"

While the first half of the feel is a rather tight nit group of actors sparring back and forth - who would've thought that Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey would spark such verbal fires together? - once the extended family comes along The Ref descends into full on anarchy. I love that look of Davis' face every time she hears the whingeing cry Christine Baranski's high-pitched voice, or the way the children look at each other in admiration of their uncle and aunt as they try to out-insult one another with stinging one-liners and embarrassing anecdotes. That it was nominated for a best casting award by the Casting Society of America is testament to this, I suppose.

The Ref was a box office flop, which is hardly surprising but surely disappointing. The Ref is not exactly as tantalising a film name as the simple, yet effective, Bad Santa, but where the former succeeds over the latter is in the degree of difficulty. Bad Santa would have been easy to make a success, what with the very image of a foul-mouthed Santa being chucklesome right off the bat. What The Ref has is an idea that needed work and some heavy lifting on behalf of the cast, which they are all game for. It never ceases to impress me how well they pulled it all together and at a time when this sort of film wasn't the norm. There will surely be plenty other anti-Christmas movies of this type, but The Ref will forever remain my favourite. Pop this on the DVD player and "celebrate the birth of Christ" with good ol' fashioned family bickering. It's the only way.

1 comment:

Walter L. Hollmann said...

My mom had us watch it every year, her favorite Christmas movie that isn't Miracle on 34th Street, Die Hard or the Christmas Carol with Alaistir Sim. I actually had the opportunity to use my favorite line -- the one you captured, actually -- in a real-life setting. Though not with my mom. SO HAPPY someone else loves this movie!