Bad Santa could easily have been titled The Triumph of the American Asshole. Billy Bob Thornton’s titular character, a safe cracker who huffs it as a mall santa during the Christmas season so as to get access to mall safes, is an alcoholic, abusive womanizer, and an all round asshole, but he gets away with it in the end. In fact, the film even shows that many of his terrible qualities can do a bit of good for others—aside from the larceny and physical abuse, that is. Apparently, if you’re an overweight kid with absent parents, it’s a real gift for an asshole to show up and teach you how to kick a guy in the balls. This is the kind of film Bad Santa is. It combines sappy sentimentality with raunchy antiheroics. It feels a bit stale nowadays, but it contains a blistering Billy Bob Thornton at its centre that saves it from being disposable.
In Bad Santa Thornton beats up teenagers, has anal sex with women in department store change rooms, and drinks beers with cigarette butts littered in them. This man will do anything, and he’s the one part of the film that remains fresh—the depths of his depravity are often shocking, and yet Thornton makes him pathetically real throughout. For example, one scene finds him pissing his pants while posing for photos with children, uncaring or unaware that he’s leaving a dark red stain on his crotch and legs. The look of dejection on his face, uncaring that his liver is shot for shit and that he’s incontinent, is almost depressing.
Bad Santa’s jokes don’t age as well. The film’s excessive raunch may have been radical back in 2003, but after a decade of popular Judd Apatow joints and the wave of raunchy comedies following Wedding Crashers’ success, it doesn’t sting like I suppose it was meant to or once did. The sight of a foul-mouthed, drunken Santa Claus casually swearing up a storm in front of children is funny the first time, but such adolescent behaviour in male characters is now de rigueur. Perhaps that’s always been the case with Hollywood comedies.
Bad Santa’s plot follows Thornton’s desperate Willie T. Stokes and his more cunning partner Marcus (Tony Cox) as they get jobs as a mall Santa and his elf in Phoenix, AZ and plan to rob the mall’s safe on Christmas Eve. Willie plans to lie low until the score, drinking his time away, but he soon gets involved with a flirtatious bartender (Lauren Graham) and becomes the unwitting caretaker of a naive, overweight child, Thurman (Brett Kelly). This development, of course, offers some form of redemption for Willie, as he’s able to lend his vulgar wisdom to the child, helping him out with bullies and the like, while the child inspires some form of responsibility in Willie. He gets to remain an asshole, but now he’s an asshole with a heart—how sweet.
There’s a strange hodgepodge of tones at play in Bad Santa, and not all of them work. Anything with Thornton is delightfully off-putting—foul but not ugly. There’s a touch of the Coen Brothers to his encounters with the child, Thurman (which makes sense, as the Coens were executive producers on the film and reportedly did an uncredited rewrite on parts of the script). There’s a comic tenderness to the scenes where Thurman stares at Willie with naive adoration while Willie looks back with disgust, as if he’s dealing with an alien being. Thurman exists in that Coen Brothers realm between honest portrait and caricature—it makes him endearingly cartoonish. Tony Cox’s rampantly raunchy elf, on the other hand, is especially distasteful, like something out of a second-rate frat comedy. It’s nice to see a little person with such a prominent part in a mainstream comedy, but a large part of the joke relies on the perceived hilarity of a foul-mouthed dwarf. Other scenes between John Ritter as the mall manager and Bernie Mac as his head of security feel like they belong in a cringe comedy, as Ritter blunders his way through conversations, speaking absurdities as Bernie Mac looks on with mild bafflement. Much of this is funny, but Bad Santa works best when it stays with Thornton.
Terry Zwigoff isn’t a great visual stylist, but he brings a good pace to the proceedings. A smashcut to Thornton beating up a teenage bully is a great example of his comic pacing. It brings just enough visceral punch to the film, if you’ll forgive the pun. It also helps that the film runs a crisp 91 minutes. No one needs more than an hour and a half of this kind of silliness.
Bad Santa is funny, foul, and still mildly provocative. You can appreciate its unabashedly foul take on the Christmas movie genre—it plays as a refreshing counterpoint to the saccharine family films that flood our televisions every December—but it’s no classic.
6 out of 10
Bad Santa (2003, USA)
Directed by Terry Zwigoff; written by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra; starring Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Lauren Graham, Lauren Tom, John Ritter, and Bernie Mac.