Bad Santa (2003): United States – directed by Terry Zwigoff
Rated R by the MPAA – contains tons of bad language, lots of crudity, sex, nudity, and a little violence to top it off
I say Bad Santa during its theatrical run and remember being appalled at a mother who had brought her two kids, aged about ten and two, to the movie. Watching it again I was able to recollect why I felt that way at the time.
Bad Santa is a raunchy, dirty, mean-spirited black comedy. There is some form of redemption at the end, but even then the filmmakers ensure that the characters remain true to form. The film was directed by Terry Zwigoff, who also did the slightly odd Ghost World and the documentary Crumb. It is produced by the Coen brothers, and the combination of them and Zwigoff means the movie will not be entirely conventional.
The story revolves around one of the dirtiest, orneriest, most pathetic losers in the history of the cinema. Billy Bob Thornton nails the role of Willie, an alcoholic low-life who works as Santa Clause during the holiday season. Willie works with a black little person, Marcus (Tony Cox), who is Santa’s elf. He’s also the brains behind their scam.
Every Christmas season they work a mall, then, on Christmas Eve night they proceed to break in (usually utilizing Marcus’ short stature) and rob the place. Willie is an expert safe-cracker, especially when he’s less drunk than normal. Together they haul off with cash and merchandise. The next year, after Willie has blown his entire portion of the job, they’re back at it again. This year, however, things look like they’ll be a little different.
It starts out normally, as Willie swears at every kid who sits on his lap. Every night he drinks himself silly. He meets a cute bartender, Sue (Lauren Graham, in a slightly less family-friendly role than Gilmore Girls). It’s a good thing she has a fetish for Santa Clauses, because Willie doesn’t have much else going for him. Their relationship, which begins in a car and involves a Santa hat, eventually turns into something almost normal.
At the same time Willie is plagued by a rotund child (Brett Kelly). If anyone in the world is as pathetic as Willie, it’s this kid. His name is Thurman Merman (which we don’t find out until late in the movie, so maybe that’s a spoiler). He lives alone with his grandma, whose only phrase is “Let me make you some sandwiches.” Thurman’s mother is with Jesus and God, and his father is hiking in the mountains (or something) for another 18 months because of extortion. He has no one to take care of him, no idea how to take care of himself. Bullies pick on him mercilessly.
Due to a mixup involving the mall security officer, Gin (Bernie Mac), Willie finds himself in need of a new place to stay. He visits Thurman’s house intent on robbing him blind, but ends up making the place his new pad. Continuing this way he juggles Sue, the kid, the house, Marcus, and his alcoholism all the way through to the climax of the film.
Along the way there are a variety of jokes on topics ranging from anal sex to crotch punching/kicking. There are amusing moments involving Willie being a thief, such as when he steals all the keys from a country club’s valet and walks the parking lot hitting door lock buttons until he finds a sports car. A lot of the comedy comes from awkward moments involving Willie spewing profanity at small children. I guess some people might not find that particularly amusing.
I remember enjoying the movie a fair amount when I saw it in the theater. This time around I found it to be a weaker film. I laughed at times, as some of the moments are quite amusing. Other times, though, I was laughing and cringing simultaneously. In spite of the dirtiness, it’s not a poorly made movie. The writing is strong, as are the characters. The acting is sufficient, except for Thornton who goes all out. I can’t really imagine anyone else filling the role as well.
I would have a hard time recommending the film to anyone except those who enjoy raunchy, dirty, black comedies. It’s one of the foremost contenders in that niche genre. Outside of that market I imagine most people will be put off by a potty-mouthed, alcoholic, miserable loser of a Santa Clause.