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 * * * *