Are you sick and tired of the recent glut of strictly by-the-numbers, saccharine-coated Christmas movies? If so, then praise the skies for Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa; a no-holds-barred misanthropic black comedy that casually takes every cherished cliché of Christmas movies, tears them to shreds and takes a piss on the remains. Crude, vulgar, crass and frequently side-splittingly hilarious, Bad Santa is a kick in the teeth to every exhibition of seasonal greetings. The one binding characteristic of virtually all Christmas films (from It’s a Wonderful Life to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation) is that a character learns an important lesson, but in Bad Santa this is reduced to a child learning to kick bullies in the balls when he’s being picked on. How’s that for Christmas spirit? To an extent this is a one-joke film, but it’s a rip-cracking one at that.
The “hero” of Bad Santa is Willie (Thornton): a hard-drinking, heavy smoking, no-hoper sexaholic who is fed up with life. Every year, Willie and his partner, an African American midget named Marcus (Cox), pull off the perfect scam. They get a job at a department store as Santa and his elf, and once the mall closes on Christmas Eve they use their insider knowledge of the security system to disable the alarms and rob the place. They use the loot to live comfortably the following year before returning to pull off the heist again at a different mall. But the scam is becoming endangered due to Willie’s excessive drinking problem and uncontrollable urges to fornicate with anything that moves. Trouble also ensues when Willie is forced to move in with an 8-year-old dweeb (Kelly) who has no friends, lives alone with his dim grandmother, and believes that the frequently intoxicated Willie is actually the real Santa.
Bad Santa did not receive its R rating from the MPAA due to one or two uses of the f-word… The whole movie is crude, foul-mouthed, dirty, disturbing and perverted; containing about 150 uses of “fuck” and its variations, as well as several other profanities, sex scenes and explicit sexual dialogue. These characters make Ebenezer Scrooge look like a pleasant, mild-mannered eccentric. If you’re in the mood for Christmas cheer, then go rent It’s a Wonderful Life again, because Bad Santa is for the crowd who’ve had enough of Christmas carols and artificial goodwill. It may be true that Bad Santa manages a happy ending of sorts, but the filmmakers have their tongue firmly in cheek even for this final scene of faux optimism. Is the film at all realistic? Fuck no! It’s unbelievable that girls find a man as seedy as Willie so sexually attractive, and it takes a healthy suspension of disbelief to accept that Willie hasn’t been fired since he continually spouts profanity in front of small children. But let’s face it, since when have Christmas movies been at all realistic?
To some, Bad Santa will be perceived as mean-spirited, and that’s more than justified. But that’s a point of praise – the film was designed to shock. Willie is shown urinating in his suit early into the film, and the contempt in which he holds kids is outright unsettling. The character is simply beyond redemption. He’s so foul, misanthropic and downright pathetic; a prick throughout every frame who shows no restraint whatsoever as he fires off venomous language to child after child without even flinching. In an absolute raping of convention, the character never undergoes some lame third-act epiphany before going about changing his ways. And that’s the film’s brilliance: the way it mocks convention. Even more effective is the little kid, who goes against every “cute movie kid” cliché imaginable. He’s not chubby-cute, but rather disconcertingly obese and impossibly blank. For most of the movie, the kid relentlessly questions Willie about the North Pole and only receives verbal abuse in response, yet it never appears to register or hurt the child…his first instinct is to offer Willie some sandwiches.
Willie’s alcohol-fuelled descent into personal self-destruction is at times hysterical but at other times sad, and it’s a testament to both Zwigoff’s focused direction and Thornton’s spot-on performance that the character never feels overplayed or contrived. Thornton was born for this role; effortlessly playing the last guy you’d ever like to see slipping on Santa’s big red suit. And as Marcus, Tony Cox is pitch-perfect, while Brett Kelly clearly understands what it takes to portray a dork. Bernie Mac (R.I.P.) is his usual larger-than-life self as a store investigator whose dialogue with the late John Ritter (who plays the mall’s manager) constitutes some of the film’s funniest dialogue moments. Ritter died not long after filming, and the movie is dedicated to him.
The biggest success of Bad Santa is the way it provides line upon line of boundlessly witty, endlessly quotable and hysterically funny dialogue. The movie is a riot from beginning to end, and best of all the replay value is through the roof. Upon viewing the film for the 50th time, you’ll still laugh hard. In fact, you’ll probably embrace the movie more and more with each new viewing. Furthermore, Bad Santa is infused with a quality that Hollywood has continually neglected while producing conventional Christmas romps: heart. This is simply the best Christmas film to hit screens for decades.