Richard Curtis Reflects on the Making of ‘About Time’

WRITER’S NOTE: This is from a press day which took place in 2013.

With “About Time,” writer/director Richard Curtis once again proves that he is the master of making romantic movies. While romantic films are currently a dying breed in America, Curtis gives the genre a much-needed re-invigoration. This is the same man who wrote the screenplays for “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and he also wrote and directed “Love Actually” which has become everyone’s favorite movie to watch at Christmastime. Curtis populates his films with characters we can all relate to, and he shows us how the simplest things in life can be so wonderful.

I got to meet up with Curtis when he appeared for the “About Time” press conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California, and he proved to be as charming and funny as many of the characters who inhabit his films. During the roundtable interview he talked about “About Time” differs from other romantic films, how he came to cast Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams, and why this will be his last movie as a director.

While these questions came from several reporters, I did take the time to put my name to the questions I asked Richard. You will find them eventually.

Question: Why did you not tear Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) and Mary (Rachel McAdams) apart in the middle of the movie only to bring them back together?

Richard Curtis: Well, I quite liked the idea in the film. There is a kind of habit in romantic films of getting people who hate each other when they meet; he’s a Nazi and she’s a member of the Socialist Worker’s Party (laughs), however will they fall in love? But most of us, when we bump into the people we are going to spend the rest of our life with, quite like them when we first meet them. I quite liked the idea that you could do something where people like each other, and then there was the time travel and then they liked each other again. I’m interested in if you can do it. I was writing about sort of a happiness in a funny way and writing about the interesting business of how things work rather than being really interested in the way things don’t work.

Q: Speaking of the time travel aspect, it’s something that people keep watching these movies for. They’re always keeping an eye out for the loophole or plot holes. Did that make it harder writing the script?

Richard Curtis: Look, you know you’re gonna fail, that’s the thing. I know where I failed in this so you just do your best and the people and the production keep you up to it, and anybody who spots anything that’s wrong will always say it to you because it’s a fun thing to spot when they’re reading the script. So, you know you’re getting closer to true without actually getting there, and it was fun to play with it. It’s also a thing where when you decide you’re going to do a time travel movie, it is something that is in your head as you’re walking around. The thing about not being able to go past the birth of your child was definitely the result of another conversation I was having with someone about how weird it is that you commit your entire life to people who you have no ability to choose, and then I thought that’s so true. And not only that, if I had sex four seconds later, I’d have a different child and then immediately I thought that would become a key plot point.

Q: This movie has two love stories in it. It has the father and son and it has the man and the woman. How were you able to find the balance so that one didn’t overshadow the other?

Richard Curtis: On the whole you try and rig films to make sure they turn out as you want them to turn out, but I think it seems as though perhaps the strength of the Bill Nighy story is more than I expected. It’s turned out to be more emotional than I expected, and I think that’s all down to the way Bill chose to play it. He chose to play it in such a sort of gentle way that I think, when you see the film, you can insert your own father into the space that Bill creates. Oddly enough, this film is in some ways less manipulative. If you’re doing a movie that ends in a big kiss and a romance, your kind of playing the cards all the way through to try and get the maximum emotion at the end. In this one I always knew that I was always aiming for this bizarrely simple final moment which was just gonna be a guy doing the most banal things in the course of an ordinary day. So, I didn’t think so much about the dynamics of the film, perhaps I have in others. But one of the ways of doing it was by getting them to get married halfway through, so that film’s done and there’s another film to rely on.

Q: Has it affected sort of the carpe diem qualities, or is that something you practiced before you started writing the script?

Richard Curtis: No. Oddly enough I think, and Bill and I talk about, because I’ve done the movie, I am thinking about that a lot more, I really am. My girlfriend, who never makes any concessions to me, says I always work far too hard and I always think that I’m not working as hard as I used to and always am. But even she is saying that she’s noticed that I seem to be creating more space and enjoying things a little bit more and making more time for normal things. So that’s why I have said I am not going to direct another film because I think that directing a movie is not a good way to have a happy life.

Q: Is that a Steven Soderbergh promise or are you just gonna keep coming back?

Richard Curtis: Anyone who says that, Steven is their hero because it means you can change your mind. It is becoming a great tradition; the great heroes like Jay-Z, doesn’t he resign? If I come back, I’m part of a noble tradition, but that is my intention at the moment.

Q: Can you talk about Comic Relief and how that came to you at a young age?

Richard Curtis: Wow, do other people know about that side of my life? Well, it started off by an almost comical mistake in that a girl I know asked if I would like to go with her to Africa, and I just said I would go to keep her company and then the charities decided to send us to different countries. They said we would cover more ground, so that was a mistake. So, I was in Ethiopia at a very bad time and that could not but change my life. That’s something I have to carry. We did a stage show and then we did a TV show, and the TV show made so much more money than was expected that I couldn’t not do it again, and I have just gone on doing it. Every time we do it, we make more money than I will earn in my entire career. I think of it as my difficult child, it takes exactly half my time, it changes its nature so I now, and after doing it now for 25 years I got a feeling that the money we’ve raised might be less important than the education or part of it. Kids in England have always grown up knowing a lot about poverty in Africa and problems at home, and that educational thing may have actually turned out to be the function of it. The next thing I’m doing is doing a year and a half trying to be part of making the new declaration by the United Nations in 2015 to end poverty, so it’s a never-ending big subject. I think the way it’s bounced off on my career is that I haven’t written my seven bad films. I do think a lot of times when people, when they finish the thing, say have I got any other ideas whereas I’m always a year behind. I thought of this film in 2005, and then I chose to do the pirate movie (“Pirate Radio”) because I wanted to be a bit older by the time I made it. It’s actually given me breathing time and let things stew longer, so I always believe quite a lot in the projects I do by the time I get to them.

Q: Fighting poverty seems like an even bigger challenge now with the gap between the rich and poor growing bigger and bigger. Do you feel sometimes like it’s a never-ending battle and how we are going to do this?

Richard Curtis: Well, you have to be realistic about that. Actually, statistically speaking, the lives of the very poorest people on the planet have never gotten better quicker than in the last 15 years. It’s been extraordinary so I’m paying more attention to that. But the rich and poor inside countries, I’d just think it increases your responsibility to try and make sure that people like me who do live in the bubble of comfort are really aware of how peoples’ lives are at the other end of the scale. I made all my children watch a documentary called “Poor Kids” the other day. It’s just a really brilliant, very sweet-natured documentary about four really poor kids in the UK, and they literally could not believe what they saw and that increases the desire to communicate this.

Q: You also focus a lot on the joy of real people like with the Heathrow Airport scenes in “Love Actually,” and then there are scenes in “About Time” that look like they had regular people in them. Where did you find those people?

Richard Curtis: Well with “Love Actually” we put up a little black box with curtains in Heathrow and just filmed and then sent assistants rushing around and saying do you mind signing this release. It’s very weird, you haven’t seen your mom for 17 years and somebody’s saying we’ve just filmed you crying embarrassingly. The strange thing is when we edited that, over half of what I wanted in that sequence I couldn’t use because it turned out we hadn’t got the permissions. The bit at the end of this one was sort of the same thing. Quite a lot of it was sort of staged. There are some things that weren’t. Most of that was directed by my girlfriend. That was the weird thing. It was the final day of the shoot. I woke up and I was in the most astonishing pain. I thought I had kidney stones or whatever, and she leapt out of bed in the highest of spirits and said she would ring a doctor on the way to the set (laughs). Some of the loveliest images there were got by her which I think sort of shows because she is full of an energy and joy about her. It was interesting how ordinary those images had to be. I didn’t shoot them at the beginning, so I didn’t quite know how it was going to end. When I thought that I would end with a series of just normal images, I took a film by a friend of mine called Kevin McDonald called “Life in a Day” which is a movie he made about YouTube, and I cut like ten favorite images from that in and showed that to friends and it was a disaster because they were good. They were so definitive, so beautiful, so picturesque, and everyone said the movie’s all been about ordinariness and you can’t then say that every day is a beautiful sunset and every day is an astonishing child framed perfectly in a window in Milan. So, I did try and keep those end bits as sort of banal as they could be, but still joyful.

Ben Kenber: “Love Actually” is my family’s favorite movie to watch every Christmas Eve. I love it too but I’m always hoping we can add “Bad Santa” as a double feature though.

Richard Curtis: Lauren Graham’s in “Bad Santa!” I love her!

Ben Kenber: I’m not usually a big fan of romantic movies, but what I love about your movies is that the people and what they go through feels so real and relatable. A lot of American romantic films are manipulative but your films never feel like they are. Your movies touch on issues that most other filmmakers don’t really take seriously.

Richard Curtis: Well, thank you very much. I don’t have an answer for that, but don’t down American filmmakers because I think there’s a kind of feeling that romantic films may not be in a good place at the moment. “(500) Days of Summer” I thought was an incredible movie, “Like Crazy” is an amazing movie about love, and “Lost in Translation” is the greatest ever romantic comedy even though it’s not a romantic comedy. I’ve been looking back because I’m thinking about finishing and thinking why did I write all these films on this subject and then suddenly realizing it is because it is the context of my life and what matters to me. How your family treats you, who you love, how you get on with your kids and your friends are what fills most of your emotional time, and I’m just trying to hang on to that and write about normal things because I never, never bump into serial killers.

Q: A lot of people don’t seem to realize that “Love Actually” is a Christmas movie because the holiday gets so pushed into the background.

Richard Curtis: I think the funny thing about “Love Actually” is the casting is now out of whack. Originally it was 50% well known and 50% not, and now the naked guy is in “The Hobbit,” January Jones is Betty Draper on “Mad Men,” and even the boy is now in “Game of Thrones.” Liam Neeson is the greatest action hero in the world and Andrew Lincoln is on “The Walking Dead,” so it’s a hell of a cast now.

Q: You are obviously a believer in love. Do you have thoughts on marriage?

Richard Curtis: Well in a way “Four Weddings and a Funeral” was a long way of explaining to my mum why I wasn’t married. She always found it hard to accept. I haven’t gotten married for particular, peculiar reasons, but I’m sure that marriage is a wonderful thing.

Q: You make great use of music and songs in your movies. Can you give us an insight into what your playlists are?

Richard Curtis: Well, the insight I would say is that I really do have to use music in order to get through the process of writing. It really is part of me learning what I’m trying to do, and sometimes that takes very specific forms. When I handed this movie in, it said on the front cover “About Time” or “The Luckiest” or “Golden Lapels.” I thought about those two so much and was so sure I was going to use them, and I thought I might even name the movie after them. So, in this movie, all the cues were there as I was writing and helped me write the right scenes and work out what I wanted to say. There’s a version of “Downtown Train,” a Tom Waits song, by Everything But The Girl, an English group which was all I listened to while I was writing “Notting Hill.” That was all I was trying to do in the whole of that movie was reproduce the emotional temperature of that song which I knew could not be in the movie, but it was my sort of guide. And then I just use pop music to cheer me up, so I got different playlists on my computer. I’m trying to make my tastes more modern. My sons are pushing me hard in that direction. My 16-year-old says he can’t listen to traditional pop music anymore because the lyrics of the songs he listens to by people like Jay-Z are so much better than normal pop songs. Normal pop songs are so thin and so repetitive, he says, that he can’t listen to them anymore.

Q: The scene in the underground subway station is one of the best in this movie. Your use of music in all your movies is great.

Richard Curtis: Well, thank you. That was a really interesting day because sometimes you hope something works but you don’t know how. I couldn’t work out as I was shooting it how it was going to be possible to edit it because he’s always going to be singing the wrong words of the song. It was never going to be correctly timed so I just shot all night and hoped the editor could work it out, and the editor said there was no problem when we got to it.

Q: Can you talk about casting the two main parts? How did that come about?

Richard Curtis: There are completely different ways that casting works. My friend, Mike Newell, said to me, “When the movie is cast, the movie is made.” He was extraordinary when we were casting Vicar #3 in “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” The guy came in and Mike said, “So tell him about Vicar #3,” and I said, “Well the leading character is trying to decide whether to get married and the vicar comes in and…” And Mike said, “No, no, tell me why did he join the church” (laughs). That level of detail and three dimensionality, I think that casting is hugely important. Rachel, having always loved her work and having picked up a sort of vibe about her as a human being and being very interested in this part about sort of contentment and in the idea of going from someone you meet on the first date and, by the end of the film, she is the mother of three, was based on trust and faith and things that she had seen and things I had also heard about her from the people who had worked with her. Domhnall on the other hand was seen as one of the top 25 young actors in the country, and I saw lots of them as often happens when I audition. Unless it’s the right actor, there doesn’t seem to be anything there at all. That was very much the case with the sister’s part until we found Lydia Wilson. It seemed as though there wasn’t anything there, and then we got Lydia with all her complicated emotions and Domhnall instantly made it funny which is absolutely key because he’s actually interested in comedy. So many young actors, you know, aren’t. They’re actually trying not to be funny and they’re trying to make people take them more seriously and think them cool or attractive, and he was really happy to be stupid and loving. He’s a lovely actor and a very sweet man. It was complicated because he was wearing his “Anna Karenina” beard so he looked like he’d stumbled out of the woods in “Deliverance” (laughs). The beard looked great if you’re wearing a military uniform, but if you’re wearing a t-shirt and jeans you look like you’re too fond of farmyard animals. It was a real act of faith, and then I made him do a whole day on camera, still with the beard, actually acting out the part and stuff. So, he worked very hard for it and was then sort of perfect.

Q: There’s a lot of Hugh Grant in Domhnall’s role, sort of like the younger version of him in “Notting Hill.” Was there any kind of connection made there?

Richard Curtis: I wasn’t aiming for Hugh at all. It’s obviously a voice that comes out when I write that part. I actually voted against Hugh in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” when it came down to it and I was, thank God, defeated 2 to 1 because Hugh was brilliant. But I think there’s something about Domhnall that’s much closer to my original inspiration when I started writing films. I was really inspired by “Gregory’s Girl,” “Breaking Away,” “Diner” and the guys in that except Mickey Rourke, and Woody Allen really. I was always looking for awkward, normal people, and I think when you first sit down with him at the party you don’t think that he’s the guy. You think he’ll be lucky to ever get a girlfriend. I like that side of him whereas with Hugh, girls would like him.

“About Time” is available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. Please feel free to check out some other “About Time” interviews I covered for the website We Got This Covered by clicking on the names below:

Bill Nighy

Rachel McAdams

Bad Santa 2

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Bad Santa 2” is the kind of sequel I thought it would be; one which repeats the story of the original. Granted, many sequels are like this, and some get away with it like “Beverly Hills Cop II,” “The Hangover Part II” and John Carpenter’s “Escape from L.A.” Clearly, this is a movie made for fans of 2003 original which has long since become a holiday and cult classic, and this sequel does contain a number of gut-busting laughs as the world’s worst mall Santa Claus ever, Willie Soke, gets himself involved in another heist. But in its second half, “Bad Santa 2” loses much of the energy it built up and begins to run on fumes as scenes quickly remind us of the original and how great it was.

It’s been 13 years since “Bad Santa” was unleashed in theaters everywhere, and the holdup was the result of Miramax being sold among other things. Billy Bob Thornton was eager to get a sequel off the ground, but because of various rights issues, it seemed impossible to start production on one for years. While it is a relief to see this sequel finally arrive at your local cinema, it’s being released at a time where a major Presidential candidate bragged on audio about grabbing women by “the pussy.” As a result, it’s hard to watch “Bad Santa 2” without thinking about that, so the bad timing of its release is unfortunate.

So, what has Willie been up to for 13 years? Well, he’s still the same old cynical lout whose heart is smaller than the Grinch’s, and he still drinks himself silly at any given opportunity. Sue (Lauren Graham from the original) has long since left him as Willie is incapable of hanging onto any nurturing relationships, but he still gets regular visits from Thurman “the kid” Merman (Brett Kelly) who still acts like an 8-year-old even at the age of 21. Willie is prepared to put himself out of his misery, but he is much better at cracking safes than at attempting suicide. One thing’s for sure, he’s got one hell of a liver.

Despite having tried to kill Willie previously, Marcus Skidmore (Tony Cox) still manages to convince him to pull off another heist which will be their biggest yet. Marcus wants to rip off a Chicago charity which is said to have $2 million dollars, but Willie is against robbing a charity because, you know, they never have that much money. But Willie’s in for a big surprise as he discovers Marcus has brought on another partner for this caper, his mother Sunny (Kathy Bates). The fact Willie is quick to punch her right in the face as soon as he recognizes her should give you a good idea of just how dysfunctional the mother/son relationship is between these two.

Thornton hasn’t lost a step since first playing Willie back in 2003, and he still knows how to give a deplorable character like this one a complexity other actors couldn’t. The actor can still land a joke like the best can, and just when you think Willie can’t reach an even deeper bottom than he already has, he does. But as irredeemable as Willie seems, Thornton still gives us a reason to root for him even as he is about to sin again.

“Bad Santa 2,” however, scores a real casting coup with the addition of Kathy Bates who shows no fear in making Sunny every bit as cynical as Willie. She relishes playing an unrepentant biker chick who throws caution to the wind just as one would flick away a cigarette to the ground, and she’s the kind of actress who’s game for just about anything and everything.

It’s also great to see Tony Cox back as Marcus, and that’s even though the logistics of Marcus working again with Willie are beyond belief. Then again, you don’t bring logic into a sequel like this. While Lauren Graham is missed, it’s crazy fun to watch “Mad Men’s” Christina Hendricks let it loose as a reformed alcoholic who still feels the need to be bad when the opportunity presents itself. As for Brett Kelly, he still gives this sequel the heart it needs as man-child Thurman Merman. You would think Thurman would have long since outgrown his attachment to Santa, but again, this is not the kind of sequel you bring logic to.

But as “Bad Santa 2” heads into its second act, the laughs begin to die down as our familiarity with original sinks in to where what was once fresh now feels sadly stale. We are introduced to Regent Hastings (Ryan Hansen) who heads the charity and is Christina’s husband who cheats on her and indulges in a foot fetish which is best left to the imagination, and there’s also the security officer who is on the verge of uncovering Willie’s true identity. They eventually bring to mind the characters John Ritter and Bernie Mac played in “Bad Santa,” but these characters are nothing more than mere caricatures supplied for the audience to despise right from the start. The characters Ritter and Mac portrayed were not clichéd ones, and each actor inhabited them with a comic brilliance not easily duplicated. The both of them are very much missed this time around.

Directing “Bad Santa 2” is Mark Waters who gave us “The House of Yes,” the “Freaky Friday” remake and the infinitely enjoyable “Mean Girls” which made a star out of Lindsay Lohan and gave Tina Fey a life outside of SNL. With this sequel, he feels obligated to stay within the original’s formula as straying from it wouldn’t have worked. Waters succeeds in keeping the comic pace of the movie up, and he generates some big laughs which left me in hysterics. However, he can’t keep it from losing steam as we become more aware of where things are heading as this sequel heads to its inevitable climax which is not as inspired as it wants to be.

For me, “Bad Santa 2” is a near miss. Some sequels are mere replications of the original, and this drives most critics up the wall. I can be a bit forgiving as I’m willing to accept this to a certain extent if the sequel proves to be entertaining, but even I have my limits. “Bad Santa 2” succeeds in its first half, but its second half shows its filmmakers running out of steam long before they crossed the finish line. It’s a shame because the original is one of my favorite movies to watch during the holidays, but this one comes up short. It definitely has its devilishly inspired moments, but it could have used more of them.

* * ½ out of * * * *

 

Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates Team Up for ‘Bad Santa 2’

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Billy Bob Thornton is back in the Santa suit as Willie Soke in “Bad Santa 2” which once again involves Willie teaming up with his partner-turned-nemesis Marcus (Tony Cox) to rob a charity in Chicago on Christmas Eve. But this time they have an additional partner in crime, and one Willie didn’t expect to deal with, his mother Sunny (played by Kathy Bates). It’s no surprise to see Willie and Sunny don’t have the best mother and son relationship, and both seem intent on outdoing each other when it comes to insults and political incorrectness. But can these two get past their differences to pull off a heist and maybe try some love and tenderness in the process? Well, you’ll have to see the movie for yourself to figure this out.

It’s great to see Thornton back in one of his most famous roles. “Bad Santa” has long since become a cult hit, and the fans were eager to see Willie back in action even as we wondered if his liver could take much more damage. Thornton was joined by Bates at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Bad Santa 2” press day, and I was eager to find out how they prepared to play their loathsome and yet strangely appealing characters. The two of them are Oscar winners, Thornton for “Sling Blade” and Bates for “Misery,” and they have since been nominated several more times. Their attention to developing a character is impeccable, and I was fascinated to learn how they worked on the ones they played in this sequel.

Their answers to my question led to a hilarious story involving Thornton and his mother, and Bates reflected on one of the first movies she ever appeared in.

Ben Kenber: First, I just want to say Willie has one hell of a liver. Also, Billy and Kathy, I read the two of you worked on your characters’ backstories a lot for this movie. What specifically did you come up with that you really agreed on and which really helped to inform your performances?

Kathy Bates: I remember one day we were talking that maybe they were carnies together and con artists and had lived in that atmosphere. Nothing against carnies, but we figured that that’s probably where they were from. What else Billy?

Billy Bob Thornton: Yeah and the idea that I was sort of like the artful dodger and she was faking. That sort of idea that I grew up, and it even says in there, where she used to sell me out to do stuff for her all the time, and so we’re sort of grifters in a way. So, it’s not like Willie doesn’t have an understanding of what she does and why she’s that way and why I’m the way I am. We grew up rough in a weird business, so that was mainly it. And also, you can see the mother-son relationship because you know how if you’re watching a movie with your parents… My mom’s 83, and if I’m watching a movie and somebody starts making out, I get so embarrassed. I’ll never forget when my mom called me once and she said she had been to see my movie, and I was like, what movie? I never even thought she would know this existed, and she just gone to see “Monster’s Ball” with her best friend and I was like, why did you do that? How could you do that to me? But I’m still that way. I have never said the F-word around my mother to this day, and she’s 83. So, there is the scene where Kathy has the dildo, and you can see the kid and the mother in that scene and it’s kind of like, golly! Don’t do that! So, I think we had that part too. You can see a mother and son in there. I think we felt it. We did talk about it to a degree, but a lot of it just came naturally.

Kathy Bates: Can I just say one last thing? I remember doing a movie years and years ago with Dustin Hoffman, and it was my first talking part in a movie. Gary Busey was in it and his son, Jake Busey, was in it too, and he was five. Jake got the part, but Gary said, “Do you want to take the night to think about it?” So, Jake came back the next day and he said, “Well, yeah, I’ll do the movie because I think acting is pretending and making believe like you’re not pretending.” And I thought, okay, that’s it. Lee Strasberg, you can go home, and that says it all.

I want to thank Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates for taking the time to answer my question. “Bad Santa 2” opens in theaters on November 23, 2016.

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Bad Santa

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I don’t know about you, but I am SICK TO DEATH of holiday movies with families getting together and chaos ensuing. After a while, they all blend into one another and look no different from what we saw the year before. These are movies which shamelessly manipulate audiences into feeling joyful during the Christmas season, but this only works for so many people. Then there are other movies which preach against the commerciality and consumer frenzy which has come to overwhelm the Christmas season for years and years. But ironically, these same movies are released by studios infinitely eager to make a huge profit and potentially start a new franchise.

Yes, it is great to see films which really get to the true meaning of Christmas providing you have a couple extra dollars for them as well as for popcorn and drinks, let alone for the date you are lucky to bring along with you. So, like romantic comedies, I tend to avoid these “festive” cinematic experiences whenever they arrive at a theater near you.

This is why I love “Bad Santa.” It is free of the sentimentality and sugar coated characters which all but mar your typical holiday movie, and this is regardless of whether or not they are intended for the whole family. It is a crude and politically incorrect film, and it has a gleeful amount of fun at Mr. Claus’ expense. But don’t worry; Santa is too busy giving presents to all the children to have any time left to sit through it.

Billy Bob Thornton, one of the best character actors working, plays Willie Stokes, a department store Santa Claus who is anything but fat and jolly. You are more likely to see him drinking backstage, making out like the womanizer he is, and doing other things completely lacking in sensitivity. Seeing him talk with the kids makes you wonder how the hell he manages to keep a job anywhere. Willie cusses at them when they sneeze in his face, and he never lets them ask about the presents they want. I kept waiting for one kid to pee on him as this happens with every department store Santa, but it turns out he is the one doing the pissing. But as cruel and Scrooge-like as Willie is, there is one person he clearly despises more than the kids and their snooty parents, himself.

Eventually, the truth comes out. Along with his partner in crime, Marcus (Tony Cox), Willie robs each mall he works at. They wait until everyone has left, then they disable the security system and go on a shopping spree where they steal all the things they want but can’t afford. Willie’s specialty is opening safes which contain the majority of the store’s loot, and he is clearly a professional safe cracker when we first observe him at work. In addition, Marcus’ wife Lois (Lauren Tom, whose face is contorted into a permanent frown) is there to drive them away when their work is finished. Following this, they take the rest of the year off and live off of the money and valuables they have taken. Marcus goes back to living with his wife while Willie goes off to Miami to get endlessly drunk, and Willie somehow gets lucky with the ladies regardless of his infinitely inebriated state.

Then we catch up with these characters a year later when they are employed at another mall where they plan their next big heist. But of course, things do not go as planned.

Thornton is a hoot as Willie Stokes. While his character does many things which would get him fired from any and every other job available, he gives this endlessly crude character a heart covered with a big slab of cynicism. And amazingly enough, he also makes Willie somewhat empathetic. This comes about when he meets a young pudgy kid who you’d think would teach him the meaning of Christmas, but he is really just stalking Willie out of loneliness. It allows Willie to warm up a little, and seeing him make any sort of effort with this kid is remarkable considering how far from sobriety he is.

The kid’s name is Thurman Merman (Willie basically calls him “The Kid”), he is played by Brett Kelly. Kelly is not anything like those clean-cut kids in Disney movies, and I found this to be very refreshing. Thurman is a short, pudgy little unpopular guy who doesn’t have any friends and is an easy target for bullies in and out of the classroom. What I really dug about Kelly is how dryly comic he is. He never seems to be the least bit fazed by anything Willie does. Willie gives Thurman a ride home and then proceeds to steal from his dad’s safe and steals his car, and Thurman responds by waving at him and saying, “Bye Santa!”

Thurman lives alone in this big house with his senile grandmother who herself is barely dealing with reality as it is. With Willie, Thurman sees him as someone who could be the friend he doesn’t have. Once Willie catches a cop sniffing around his motel room, he ends up moving in with Thurman to stay out of law enforcement’s sight, and this also allows him to play with Thurman and make out with a local bartender in the hot tub while the grandmother watches television listlessly.

“Bad Santa” was directed by Terry Zwigoff whose previous films include “Ghost World,” “American Splendor” and one of the best documentaries of the 1990’s, “Crumb.” Zwigoff is interested in personalities who are far from normal and have been damaged by life. With “Crumb,” he took a close look at a man who dealt with abuse through his creation of comic books which kept him from going completely insane. With “Ghost World,” he followed a couple of girls who prided themselves on being outsiders at their high school. But in the process of becoming adults, their world is shattered by the onslaught of the corporate world which robs what was once original and special to them. Now with “Bad Santa,” Zwigoff deals with his most damaged character yet with Willie, and you wonder if he is worthy of any kind of redemption. As a result, he is more than well-suited to take on this story which was originally written by the Coen Brothers.

Zwigoff also has a blast digging away at the banal culture of American malls. While they were havens for us as teenagers, they eventually became tiresome places to visit as adults because all the stores and food courts became indistinguishable from one mall to the next. From the anal-retentive managers to the overconfident mall security officers to those annoying boy bands, the movie cuts down the sugar coating of the holidays which will be a relief to those who find it fake or something they don’t care much for anymore.

Tony Cox is hilarious as Marcus. You quickly realize Marcus works with Willie out of necessity, not friendship. Truth is, as great a safe man as Willie is, Marcus cannot stand the way he degrades himself and those around him. Lauren Tom plays Marcus’ wife, and I love how she maintains the same snarky expression as she constantly blows off mall employees who want to sell her stuff she plans to steal anyway. I also got a big kick out of Lauren Graham who plays Sue, a local bartender who starts up a relationship with Willie. Sue is not with Willie out of pity, but in large part because of a sexual fetish she has had for Santa Claus ever since she was young.

But the two actors who deserve special recognition for their great work in “Bad Santa,” and who are sadly no longer with us, are John Ritter and Bernie Mac. This actually turned out to be Ritter’s last live action role before his sudden death. As mall manager Bob Chipeska, Ritter reminds us of what a great comic talent he was as he becomes incensed with what Willie gets away with, and yet he is too much of a wimp to do anything to stop him. Instead, he turns to Gin Slagel, mall security chief, who is played by Mac. Even when he doesn’t say a word while eating an orange, Mac still has us laughing hysterically throughout. The diner scene Mac has with our main characters is brilliant in how he maintains a strong air of confidence, and I loved how he kept finding different ways of repeating the same number over and over again.

“Bad Santa” is the perfect holiday film for those who love infinitely black comedies like “The War of the Roses” or “Observe and Report.” It is a much-needed antidote to the manipulative schmaltz many get suckered into seeing, and it makes us root for a character you would never root for in real life. This is definitely one of Thornton’s best movies, and I consider a new holiday classic for those who have seen “A Christmas Carol” and “The Polar Express” one too many times.

Just remember, you have been warned…

* * * * out of * * * *