Bad Santa (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Bad Santa's Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is the kind of guy who makes Scrooge look like a generous, mild mannered eccentric. With a character as thoroughly unlikable as this, you know immediately that Bad Santa is not going to be just another modern-day version of A Christmas Carol. It has two modes: dark and darker, and dares to do some things with the Christmas motif that haven't been done since Norman Rene's Reckless. Realistically, however, what else would you expect from a movie directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World) and executive produced by the Coen Brothers?

If you're looking for Christmas cheer, figure out when Love Actually is playing. Bad Santa is for anyone who has had enough of Christmas carols, artificial goodwill, and It's a Wonderful Life. Although it's true that the movie manages a happy ending of sorts, the filmmakers have their tongues wedged in their cheeks for that final scene of faux optimism, and it can certainly be interpreted in more than one way. (Is it real or a fantasy?)

The film's central figure is Willie, a loser who has adopted just about every vice known to man. The only reason he doesn't smoke more is because it would interfere with his drinking. Every Christmas, he and his partner, a dwarf (Tony Cox), get a job in a mall department store as Santa and his elf. Then, on Christmas Eve, after the mall has closed, they use their insider knowledge of the security system to disable the alarms. Willie, who has a background in safe cracking, gets them enough loot so that they can live comfortably for the next year. Except this time, things are different.

Thurman (Brett Kelly) is an 8-year old dweeb who is constantly bullied, has no friends, and lives by himself (actually, he lives with his senile grandmother, but that's as good as alone). In need of someone to believe in, he inexplicably chooses Willie, whom he constantly refers to as "Santa," even when Willie's drunk, out of costume, or humping "Mrs. Santa's sister" (Lauren Graham as a woman with a serious Santa fixation). At first, Willie is annoyed with Thurman for hanging around him, but, upon figuring out how he can use the kid, he has a change of heart. Soon, he's living in Thurman's house as he prepares for his next robbery.

Some will call this movie "mean spirited," and they're probably right. But it is designed to shock. Early in the film, we see Santa urinating in his suit, and the contempt in which he holds the kids is unsettling. The movie doesn't cop out by reforming Willie, either. That might be the perfect approach for a film that contains an ounce of holiday cheer, but it's not Bad Santa. Yet, for all its darkness - or perhaps because of it - Bad Santa is sometimes laugh-aloud hilarious. The humor is offbeat and unconventional, but much of it is funny. The fact that they're laughing through this movie will make some people feel distinctly uncomfortable.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie like he was born for the role. Bernie Mac is his usual larger-than-life self as a store investigator who has his eye on Willie. Brett Kelly understands what it takes to portray a dork. And Tony Cox proves that Peter Dinklage isn't the only dwarf with an attitude. Mention must be made of John Ritter in his final movie role (the film is dedicated to him). For Ritter, this isn't a standout part (he's playing the part of the department store manager who hires Willie), but it will get a fair amount of attention.

Bad Santa is definitely not for everyone. If you appreciate movies that don't compromise on their comedic journey into the heart of darkness, this is for you. If you howled at Danny DeVito's War of the Roses and think it's one of the best comedies to reach theaters in the last 20 years, Bad Santa will delight you. But if you're expecting something kinder and gentler, there's still time to see Elf. Because "kind" and "gentle" are two words no one is ever going to use to describe Bad Santa.

Bad Santa (United States, 2003)

Director: Terry Zwigoff
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac, Lauren Graham, John Ritter, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly
Screenplay: John Requa & Glenn Ficarra
Cinematography: Jamie Anderson
U.S. Distributor: Dimension Films
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2003-11-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1