Bad Santa

| December 7, 2003

Some people hate Christmas. Some people hate themselves. Some people hate life. Some people hate other people. And some people love drinking.
Willie, as played by Billy Bob Thornton, is “some people” in Bad Santa.
And it’s probably not for those other people.
A total degenerate in every sense of the word, the titular Bad Santa is a department store thief with a penchant for drinking himself sick, insulting everyone around him in the most vulgar terms possible, and lasciviously ogling any and all females in his general area. Every year, he waits for his diminutive friend Marcus (Tony Cox) to ring him up and get his ass in gear to whatever affluent suburb Marcus has cased, so that together they can pose as a department store Santa and his helpful elf. For a month or so, the two misfits put up with legions of kids parading through the line to tell Santa what they want for Christmas. When the holiday season ends, the pair robs the store blind.
It’s a perfect plan and has worked for them, without fail, for several years when the movie begins. But Willie’s behavior is becoming increasingly repellent and self-destructive, so much so that Marcus is getting fed up and feels his partner is compromising their ability to pull the heist without getting nailed. Throw in the bizarre little kid who inexplicably latches onto Willie as a type of father figure, and, against all odds and without any of the typical saccharine holiday claptrap, Willie’s black, self-loathing heart begins to thaw. But not in a cheesy, redemptive, kind of way. It’s in more of a vengeful, teach-your-children-hell kind of way.
All of which makes for a delightfully crude, sentiment-free, anti-holiday spirit movie.
Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World), film’s clearest-eyed chronicler of the American outsider directs Thornton in a role once meant for King of Snark Bill Murray, and it’s hard to imagine Murray extending himself the way BBT does in this obscenity-laden romp through all things typically sacred in Christmas movies. BBT pulls absolutely no punches in his portrayal of the totally out of control booze bag, and Zwigoff has no problem keeping pace, shattering the normally safe sensibility of holiday entertainment.
Bad Santa is in NO WAY intended for kids, and it’s that funny, ferocious adult tone that keeps the laughs potent and plentiful. Occasionally, however, the filmmakers ladle the vulgarity on too thick, resulting in some overdone moments that strive to push the envelope of bad taste and feel forced and gratuitous.
The supporting cast includes Bernie Mac as an equally ill-mannered security chief at the department store; Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) playing against type as Willie’s unlikely love interest, complete with Santa fetish; and John Ritter, one of Thornton’s closest friends, in his last role as a befuddled store manager. The film concludes with a dedication to Ritter.
But the jewel of the lot is Brett Kelly, who plays The Kid. The Kid is a sympathy-eliciting oddball who mopes his way into Willie’s heart and offers the film’s sole moments of pathos, albeit in as unique and unconventional a style as you’ll ever see in a Hollywood film. He looks like something from the dream of a drunk thirties-era Frenchman.
Really not for everyone, but rewarding for those with a warped sense of humor and a high threshold for blue humor, Bad Santa is a welcome, hilarious respite from the hallmark cheer we’re usually force-fed throughout the holiday season.

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