Dir. by Terry Zwigoff - 1 hr. 38 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
Some people really get into the Christmas spirit, and it's the highlight of the year for these people. And then there are people who completely hate Christmas, and need an antidote to the non-stop saccharine sentiment and commercialism that the season has turned into. "Bad Santa" is a film for the latter. If you need an hour and a half of non-stop self-loathing, off-color humor, and a near constant stream of profanity to get you through to the new year, you are in luck.
Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) and Marcus (Tony Cox) are a pair of con-men with a very particular grift: they go to work at a different department store every year and work as the mall Santa and elf, respectively. Then, when everything shuts down for Christmas, they loot the store and live off the proceeds until it's time to do it all over again. Problem is, Willie is becoming much more unreliable due to his heavy drinking and questionable behavior. But he's also a really good safe-cracker, so he's kind of important to the scam. This time around, they settle on a Phoenix mall as the site of their long scam.
The crime part of the story doesn't really give you the full flavor of the level of Willie's depravity. Part of the appeal of "Bad Santa" is seeing Billy Bob Thornton in a Santa suit, unleashing every bit of contempt on everyone in sight (and in the way that Thornton seems born to do). His behavior includes everything from pissing himself on the Santa chair as the last child for the day walks away, to nailing a "big and tall" chick in the dressing room at the store, to hiding out at the house of some kid who seems to genuinely believe that Willie is Santa (and continually asks logistical Santa questions of Willie, in one of the best running gags through the movie) and who seems to have no one at the house looking after him (other than his sweet, senile grandmother, played by Cloris Leachman). If there is a unturned stone in terms of taking advantage of people or behaving in wildly irresponsible ways, you know that Willie will get there (or has already been there).
I'll freely admit, bad taste is easy to do. So there's got to be more going on in order to make an idea like "Bad Santa" a decent movie. This isn't a dumb movie at all, it's just that the Santa is mean-spirited and unfocused. But then you get a gem of a scene like this one, which is messed up in so many ways, but also a spectacular bit of character writing:
And there's also the pair of redemption stories for Willie, in Sue (Lauren Graham), who is a bartender with a Santa fetish and who also takes an inexplicable shine to Willie, and The Kid (Brett Kelly), an overweight spineless lump of a child who at times does really smart things, but always seems kind of off. At first, The Kid just irritates Willie, but Willie ends up giving him a ride home (with the intention of robbing the house, since there's no mother or father there). Willie can't believe his eyes when he gets to the really nice house, and while he definitely takes advantage of the situation (the wall safe, in particular, but he also ends up living in the house when he thinks the police are rifling through his hotel room), he also ends up as a foul-mouthed protector of sorts to the kid. Willie cannot believe how stupid this child is (although it's more like there's no one there to teach him anything at all, a situation which is resonant to Willie), and he gets the chance to help The Kid out as well.
As for Sue, well, Lauren Graham is fantastic in this role. She's cute, perky, and looks great in nothing but her bra. There's even a scene where Willie, Sue and The Kid are decorating a Christmas tree, but Willie literally can't take his eyes off of her ass. It's as if he's stunned at it's very existence, and mesmerized at the same time, and that's a completely accurate assessment. I don't want to harp on Graham's looks, her comedic chops are in full display here, but this is a movie full of ugly, oddly-shaped, and just plain weird-looking men, and having one camera-friendly character goes a long way. But her character also has a way normalizing Willie (that's not to say cleaning him up - she doesn't seem to be there to change him) and focusing his odd behavior in one direction instead of all over the place, all the time.
"Bad Santa" has a couple of good smaller roles for Bernie Mac and John Ritter (his final film). Mac is a presence on screen, and Ritter knocks his material out of the park. He's all meek sliminess (a tough combination to pull off), and his facial reactions and tics in response to more unsavory discussions are a sight to behold: pure comic gold. And in honestly, it's the fact that a lot of the other characters in the film are horrified by Willie's behavior (even Marcus, his partner, is always dressing him down for his behavior). This isn't a film entirely populated by awful people doing awful things in a game of one-upmanship, it's a film populated by people dealing with one truly awful person, some by choice and some forced to by circumstance. That's the key to doing a bad taste film; if no one in the film seems to think that there's anything wrong with what anyone else is doing, it's just going to put off the majority of the audience. It's not a world that most people would want to be involved in.
"Bad Santa" isn't a perfect film, but it is a funny one, and if you can't stand watching "It's a Wonderful Life" for the umpteenth time, this might be exactly what you're looking for.
3 / 5 - Blu-Ray