Crass, Disrespectful and Hilarious
Main Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, John Ritter
Director: Terry Zwigoff
There are plenty of movies out there that poke gentle fun at Christmas. Be it the commercialization, the hype, the traditions, the family spirit some equate with the holiday, it’s all ripe fodder for a light touch of derision tempered by a large dollop of hokey sentimentalism. In the end the Christmas spirit always wins out and the characters in the movie are better for having embraced some aspect of the holiday. Then we have a whole different kind of movie. The one that seems to have been made by people who really, truly hate Christmas, and would like to take a cinematic dump on the entire tradition. It would appear, from all the evidence available, that Bad Santa was made by some folks from the latter camp. In fact, it’s the only film I can think of in that camp. So it’s a lonely camp, but a really, really funny one. If you like that sort of thing.
Bad Santa tells the story of just that, a really bad Santa. Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is a mean, drunk deadbeat who also happens to make his living playing a department store Santa. Well, not really, he just uses the job in order to rip off the stores. But in order to have proper store access, Willie and Marcus (Tony Cox) take jobs as Santa and Elf, respectively. They seem to have quite an advantage in this job arena, being as how Marcus is a little person. It would appear that even a drunken, slovenly Santa is alright as long as the elf looks genuine.
Of course, the stores don’t necessarily know that Willie is about as far from the embodiment of the Christmas spirit as is humanly possible. He just has to show up; Marcus takes care of the rest. Not happily, but he does it. It helps that Willie knows how to crack a safe – it seems that forgives a whole lot of bad behavior when you get right down to it.
Bad behavior is the one thing at which Willie is an expert. He’s a chronic, unapologetic alcoholic with bad hygiene, a foul mouth, a rotten temper and the tendency to have sex whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself. The actual plot of Bad Santa revolves around one particular Christmas at a store in Phoenix, where Willie and Marcus have displaced the long-time, jovial, pretty much perfect Santa with their spiffy resume. Upon meeting the store manager (John Ritter in his final movie), Willie shines by firing off a lovely tirade which includes the traditional holiday term “fuck stick”. He follows this performance with one of his usual happy interludes with the kiddies, in which he swears freely, gets sneezed on, irritated and approached by a heavy set, wide eyed kid who seems to be simply the most naïve creature on the planet. As store detective Gin (Bernie Mac) begins to sniff around Willie, he and the kid develop a kind of really twisted, dysfunctional, yet interesting friendship that drives the rest of the movie.
A whole lot of people are not going to like Bad Santa. It’s chock full of boozing, horribly foul language, sex and the kind of protagonist that has no right being a protagonist at all. And it’s a Christmas movie. One that takes every possible opportunity to befoul the traditions of the holiday. From wetting himself while playing Santa, to beating people up in his Santa suit, to a sexual relationship based on a Santa fetish, this film really doesn’t spare a single one of
the secular aspects of this holiday. It leaves the religion alone, for the most part, but everything else is unmercifully gleefully besmirched by our grinning, drunk Bad Santa. Willie knows he’s a completely disgusting excuse for a human being – Marcus tells him so repeatedly – and once in awhile he even cares a little bit. Not enough to really do anything about it, but he feels a tiny pang of crappy person angst. Then he has another drink and cusses out some more little kids and feels back to his usual self. Thornton is a fabulous Willie. He’s every bit as foul as he needs to be – and then some. Yet he has a certain kind of horrible charm, too. We want to hate him; in fact we do indeed hate him, but not every minute. Sometimes we almost like him. But then Thornton makes good and sure that we go back to hating him right quick. And he’s hysterically funny doing it. Few actors have the ability to squeeze every last drop of loathsome fun out of a character like Billy Bob Thornton. He revels in being over the top, scorn filled, disgusting and hedonistic. It’s very clear that he had some major fun playing this character that slaps every other Santa in film history in the face. Then laughs.
Backing up Thornton is Tony Cox as Marcus. Some of the best physical humor involves Marcus and Willie in various scuffles. Marcus has absolutely no qualms about how he makes his living. Cox joins Thornton in his gleeful stomping of all things Christmas. Marcus is unabashedly greedy, ruthlessly planning his jobs for the maximum profit in both merchandise and cash. His wife (Lauren Tom) scouts out stores ahead of time and makes up lists of what she wants. Cox looks to be enjoying himself just as much as Thornton. There’s a certain manic glee to the whole cast as they take on such a venerable institution as Christmas and beat the living daylights out of it. John Ritter as the beleaguered store manager is an absolute delight. He cringes and simpers at the antics of Willie, yet is afraid of Marcus. And Gin. And everything else. Watching as he tries to bring himself to describe Willie’s activities in a particular dressing room, as he wriggles with discomfort and looks as if he might throw up as he searches for euphemism after euphemism is absolutely priceless. Some will say that it’s a shame that Ritter’s last film is so thoroughly vile. I think absolutely otherwise. This is a wonderful role, and a wonderful performance, showing us a side of Ritter that didn’t always show up in his other work. He may play the shrinking violet, but he’s just as much a part of the subversive mayhem as everyone else, and looks like he enjoyed every minute of it. The other standout performance is Brett Kelly as the little kid that attempts (well, not really, but sort of, in his own peculiar way) to redeem this belching, farting, fornicating Santa. He gives this child a fabulous wide eyed idiocy that will make you simply love the kid. Even if he is dumb as a box of rocks. His home life stinks, and you feel for the kid – even going so far as to want him to have a friendship with Willie. That’s a bad home life indeed.
Writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa didn’t put together a film in Bad Santa destined to become a feel good film for the holidays. They and director Terry Zwigoff instead deliver a despicable rendition of a beloved cultural icon. Not entirely irredeemable, in the end, but not exactly saved by the spirit of Christmas either. They give Thornton and his merry gang free reign to be as disgusting as possible, and they end up with a film that’s a Scrooge’s delight. Yet the film does not devolve into yet another movie revolving around bathroom humor. The comedy here is more robust, with deep undertones of cynicism and edginess with just a slight aftertaste of bourbon. Far more full bodied than a series of poop jokes. This is a film for those out there who love to see a good Christmas bashing or those who have a healthy (and perverse) sense of humor about their beloved holiday. And those with a high naughty word threshold. My only real criticism of the film is that there are a fair number of kids in the cast who are treated to some really foul language. It really isn’t a film for kids, at all, despite its supposed Christmasly nature. Bad Santa is an adult spoof, in terrible taste and absolutely hilarious. It definitely isn’t for everybody, but if it sounds like your cup of tea, enjoy! I know I did. 4 stars.
*There is a DVD version of this film entitled “Badder Santa”, which contains yet more sex and profanity than the original and is unrated. Don’t say I didn’t warn you……
You can usually find Sue watching dysfunctional family indie dramas in order to make her own household seem normal. She is the Editorial Manager at Silver Beacon Marketing and an aspiring Crazy Cat Lady.