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Bad Santa (2003)

by Steve Habrat

From the snowless southwest setting to it’s alcoholic, self-destructive tomfoolery, Bad Santa seems like an unlikely holiday hit. Just get a load of its sloshed opening where Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie, dressed as the skinniest Santa Claus you will ever lay eyes on, vomits in a snowy alley on Christmas Eve. It’s certainly not one you could put on for the kiddies to distract them while you wrap your Christmas gifts or gather as a family to have a few guffaws at. Bad Santa is bad, naughty, anti-social, raucous, dirty, ugly, and downright side-splitting if you are not one with virgin ears. The best part is that Willie clings to his bad attitude the entire journey, making him one of the most loveable anti-heroes in a Santa hat. It is important, though, that you gauge if this film is appropriate for you, as I could see some getting their panties in a bunch over Willie’s womanizing, violent temper, and treatment of the kiddies. I howled with laughter over his short fuse, especially when one tyke sneezes chocolate ice cream all over his white beard. The funniest part is that we really don’t hold his mood against him.

Willie (Played by Thornton) and his dwarf friend Marcus (Played by Tony Cox) pose as a mall Santa and one of his elves. Willie has issues holding his temper together and Marcus has to constantly keep him in check. Every Christmas Eve, they rob a mall and disappear until the holidays return, only to show up at a new mall in a new city. A year later, Marcus contacts Willie in Miami and recruits him for a new job in the southwest. After checking in to the mall and meeting the prim and proper mall manager Bob Chipeska (Played by the late John Ritter), they begin their duties. Bob begins to suspect something strange about the duo and he seeks the help of the mall security chief Gin Slagel (Played by the late Bernie Mac), who agrees to keep an eye on Willie and Marcus.  Willie also begins shacking up at the home of a pudgy kid who he nicknames “the Kid” (Played by Brett Kelly) and his senile grandmother. He also begins seeing a seductive bartender named Sue (Played by Lauren Graham), who he develops genuine affection for. As Willie and Marcus begin to plot their heist, they find themselves at the hands of Gin, who figures out their history and demands half of what they steal. Willie also begins mentoring the Kid and he begins to show glimmers of kindness.

Going against the usual messages of hope, love, cheer, joy, and peace on earth, Bad Santa embraces degenerate behavior and a foul mouth that, if an open flame were lit near its boozy breath, it would burst into hellfire flames. It has the balls to go against “the norm”, which I absolutely love. Willie is pathetic, one who we want so desperately to loathe but can’t help but like. He is perpetually nursing a hangover, an acting style that Thornton excels at. I have to admit I love his as the grump. The other shining star in Bad Santa is John Ritter as Bob Chipeska, who steals some of the funniest lines of dialogue in the entire film. He plays an uptight family man role who is always squeaky clean. Bernie Mac hits a homerun as a smart-ass swindler who is just looking out for himelf. His negotiating skills will have you slapping your knees. It is these three performances that make the film a must see.

While Cox, Graham, and Kelly are memorable, they sometimes don’t hold a candle to the work done by Thornton, Ritter, and Mac. The story has enough outrageous and taboo situations (Chipeska stumbling upon Willie and another woman becoming intimate in a dressing room is a classic, especially a certain line of dialogue delivered with such seriousness by Thornton, I almost think he meant it.) to keep its one-dimensional message buoyant. It is basically the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, someone who rejects the season at first, only to finally come around and see the error of his ways. At least Thornton has the good sense to retain the disgust that flashes in his droopy eyes every so often–sometimes I think it is at himself. The love does come creeping in, even if it is in a rather left of center way. The film also rests heavily on irony, mostly by placing the un-jolly Thornton in the britches of Santa and having him display zero enthusiasm and a strong dislike for kids. It’s a joke that many may fear will get stretched a too thin but it continues to get us chuckling.

Bad Santa doesn’t do much to change the Christmas comedy through technicalities, as the film is rather flatly shot. Director Terry Zwigoff lets the script do most of the work, which usually means having one of the contemptible characters deliver a hugely over-the-top line of dialogue. It also relies on its shock-and-awe premise, leaving us asking ‘Will it go there?’ and it usually does. It’s a staple that raunchy comedies heavily rely on but we have become largely forgiving for it. It has boiled down to how far can the envelope be pushed and how much will audiences take. Bad Santa basically wants nothing more than to give the adults a break from the childish touches of the season. With everything revolving around the kiddies and family orientated activities, it’s the perfect middle finger to the season.

Grade: B+

Bad Santa is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.