The film opens with a wide shot of the main street in a small town. A gentle snow falls from the sky as the camera pans down to reveal the local pub. It is a warm-looking place, filled with people talking and laughing. The shot is beautiful, and it’s also the last one of its kind that you’ll see in Bad Santa. This film is rude, vulgar, and offensive. It’s also absolutely hilarious. The thing about bad taste is, you’ve got embrace it to make it work. Bad Santa not only embraces bad taste, it envelops it. And I couldn’t stop laughing.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie Soke, a hostile, drunk, womanizing, anti-social safecracker with an original modus operandi. Every Christmas, Willie gets a job somewhere playing department store Santa. His dwarf partner Marcus (Tony Cox) plays an elf. They wait until the store is closed, then break into the safe. Afterward, they disappear, only to reunite a year later in a different city, at a different store. Although they’ve been working together a long time, Marcus is becoming tired of his partner. The guy is usually so drunk that he constantly threatens to expose them. In one memorable scene, Willie is so boozed up that he wets his pants on the job. When he’s not drinking (and sometimes when he is), Willie is preoccupied with picking up women, such as bartender Sue (Lauren Graham), who doesn’t find him repulsive at all; she has a sexual fantasy about Santa Claus that he all too happily makes come true. (Her orgasmic mantra could become a national catchphrase.)
For their current job, Willie and Marcus find themselves in an Arizona shopping mall anchor store managed by Bob Chipeska (John Ritter). The manager is appalled to find his Santa showing up for work intoxicated, using profanity in front of children, and having sexual liaisons in the dressing rooms. He consults the store detective, Gin Slagel (Bernie Mac), who quickly figures out what Willie and Marcus are up to. Rather than arrest them, though, he demands a cut of the money.
What no one counts on is the appearance of young Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), a creepy, overweight little boy who is obsessed with Santa and believes Willie to be the real deal. The kid is without parental supervision, and he keeps hanging around asking questions about toy factories and reindeer. Willie repeatedly tells the boy to leave him the @#$% alone, but the kid is persistent. It doesn’t take long for the homeless Willie to move in with Thurman and his semi-comatose grandmother. He remains annoyed by the boy, although as the story progresses, he finds himself developing a curious soft spot for Thurman. When teenage bullies give Thurman an atomic wedgie, Willie offers a lesson in self-defense, i.e. he recommends the kid kick his enemies in the groin.
Now, if you’re thinking this is one of those movies about the cold-hearted cynic whose life changes for the better after a cute little moppet comes into his life, think again. Bad Santa turns that convention on its ear. For starters, Willie is actually pretty mean to the kid at times. He’s rude and condescending, his language peppered with profanity. Secondly – and more interestingly – Thurman is never played as a cute kid. Quite the opposite, in fact. The filmmakers play up the character’s weirdness, even going so far as to suggest some semi-serious mental disturbance. (At one point, Thurman makes an offhanded reference to “going potty on Mommy’s dishes.”) In other words, if Willie has his deep-seated issues, so does the kid.
The other thing that Bad Santa does to buck convention is to aim a little higher. Anyone could have made a film about a drunken Santa impersonator and a snot-nosed kid. And if they did, it could probably be as funny as this movie is. However, director Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World) and writers John Requa and Glenn Ficarra don’t just go for outrageous laughs; instead, they use the story as a genuine character study. This is the tale of Willie, who has virtually given up on everything that can’t be ingested or indiscriminately screwed. His life has spiraled into nothingness; he just barely exists. This man who believes in nothing then meets a weird kid who has nothing to believe in, yet inexplicably believes in Santa Claus. Their tentative friendship changes both their lives. I laughed a lot at this movie, but I’d be lying if I denied that the real appeal was watching such fascinating characters navigate the emptiness of their own lives.
You really have to hand it to Billy Bob Thornton, who exhibits fearlessness in this role. Many actors don’t want to appear unlikable on screen. Thornton, on the other hand, seems to relish playing such a character who is so blatantly unsympathetic. He captures the many layers of Willie, and somehow keeps the character’s misery from getting on the audience’s nerves. The rest of the cast is good as well. Tony Cox (perhaps best known as the limo driver who ran off with Jim Carrey’s wife in Me, Myself & Irene) brings a nice comic exasperation to his role. Marcus is fed up with his partner’s lack of dependability, which Cox makes very humorous. Lauren Graham and Bernie Mac are also well-utilized, and the late John Ritter makes his final film performance a memorable one. Some of the biggest laughs come from his uptight character trying to explain the vulgarity he keeps witnessing. Newcomer Brett Kelly perfectly avoids all the clichés of movie kid-cuteness. Boy, does he ever. Any kid could play all cutesy onscreen. This one plays bizarre. Truly bizarre. And he does it eerily well.
With all the movie’s politically incorrect, heavy-duty R-rated humor, I worried that Bad Santa would sell out by getting all warm and fuzzy at the end. Happily, that doesn’t occur. Oh sure, everyone has learned a lesson, and Willie becomes a (marginally) better person. But the ending doesn’t give you the feeling that everything is suddenly right with the world. Instead, it makes you believe that things are just a tiny bit less screwed up than they were before. With a picture like this, that’s exactly the way it should be.
( 1/2 out of four)
Note: Screenwriters John Requa and Glenn Ficarra previously wrote the family film Cats and Dogs. I find it fascinating that they could pen two such completely different scripts.
Bad Santa is rated R for pervasive language, strong sexual content and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.
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