When “Bad Santa” was released back in 2003, it was genuinely subversive. The Washington Times, presumably unfamiliar with the concept of an R-rated comedy, condemned it as “a disgusting movie” which “does not have a moral message”. While the newspaper’s editors may have missed the film’s underlying sweetness and anti-commercialisation stance, you can understand why they were upset. Billy Bob Thornton starred as a foul-mouthed, sex-addicted, alcoholic, misanthropic, suicidal low-life who dressed up as a shopping-mall Santa so that he could rob the mall’s safe. “Miracle on 34th Street” it wasn’t.
But if the film’s content was strong stuff, its title was what really packed a punch. With its stripped-back simplicity and its audacious pairing of two incongruous words which suddenly seemed inseparable, “Bad Santa” had an impact which, say, “The Heist Before Christmas” could never have matched. The film was a box-office hit, making $76m from a budget of $23m, and it did even better on DVD. Now, 13 years on, it has a sequel: “Bad Santa 2”.
If you were under the impression that a sequel had been and gone already, that’s because its in-your-face title has been copied by so many comedies in the meantime. They all took a figure associated with child-friendly respectability and depicted them as selfish and hedonistic. And they all followed the “Bad Something” naming pattern. In 2011, Cameron Diaz starred in “Bad Teacher”, which became a short-lived television series in 2014. The hidden-camera pranksters behind “Jackass” made “Bad Grandpa” in 2013. And this year we have had “Bad Moms”, in which Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell revolted against the cult of maternal perfection. See also Ayelet Waldman’s book of essays, “Bad Mother”, which was published in 2009.
The trend for such blunt, on-the-nose comedy titles extends beyond the “Bad” ones. “Horrible Bosses” came out in 2011 and “Horrible Bosses 2” in 2014. This year we had the pleasure of seeing “Dirty Grandpa”, with Robert De Niro and Zac Efron, which would surely have been called “Bad Grandpa” if that name had still been available. Now Hollywood comedy titles are being stripped down even further. “Office Christmas Party” will be released in December, a film which reunites Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston, who both appeared in “Horrible Bosses”. What a comedown. Where “Bad Santa” sounded confrontational, and “Bad Moms” and “Dirty Grandpa” sounded vaguely mischievous, “Office Christmas Party” offers nothing but functional blandness. And the plummet towards the lowest common denominator isn’t over yet. Next year, we are due for two comedies called “Fist Fight” and “Drunk Parents”.
The last time there was such a spate of formulaic and derivative film titles was when “Basic Instinct”, “Fatal Attraction” and “Indecent Proposal” were hits in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They were followed by countless “erotic thrillers” which stuck together an adjective and an abstract noun: “Indecent Behaviour”, “Sexual Response”, “Human Desires”, and so on. Any hormonal boy who saw them in the video shop knew just what he was paying for. The difference is that these off-the-peg titles were all applied to cheap, straight-to-video dross. The fact that such uninspired and uninspiring monickers are now being slapped on mainstream Hollywood comedies is depressing.
But I suppose they serve a purpose, or maybe several purposes. First of all, they’re informative. They are essentially two- or three-word pitches which leave you in absolutely no doubt as to the film’s tone and content. That’s what’s so depressing about them. It’s a sad state of affairs when Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Aniston and Robert De Niro are afraid of being in a comedy which might demand more than three seconds’ thought from a wavering potential viewer.
This obviousness is particularly useful in the age of internet search engines. If you’re looking up a film on Netflix or a clip on YouTube, you don’t have to ask yourself, “What was that comedy with the bad teacher in it?” or “How can I find the trailer for that thing with the office Christmas party?” Type in the first words that come to mind, and you’ve got your answer. They’re hashtags as much as titles.
Short-and-to-the-point titles also help with international sales, which are more crucial to Hollywood than ever before. They are a lot easier to understand in non-English-speaking countries than “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, for instance. According to IMDb, a movie database, “Bad Santa” stayed as “Bad Santa” when it was released in France, Spain and Portugal, while in the places where the title was translated, the foreign-language versions tended to be just as concise. In Italy, “Bad Santa” became “Babbo bastardo”.
But the most important purpose of these rudimentary names is that they lower expectations. There is very little in “Dirty Grandpa” apart from a grandpa being dirty, and very little in “Bad Moms” apart from mothers behaving badly. The half-hearted titles are so lazy that they prepare you for the laziness of the films themselves. In a way, you have to respect their honesty. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that Hollywood comedies, like their titles, are going from “Bad” to worse.