Bad Santa

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 11/26/03 17:04:39

"More Naughty Than Funny"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Bad Santa heads into its final credits with a moment of triumph as a young, pudgy outsider kicks a bully in the balls and the theme to Carmen plays. We’re instantly reminded of another group of outsiders, reluctantly taken responsibility for by a boozing, foul-mouthed lout of a human being. There was something subversive about Walter Matthau coaching this little league team back in 1976. Billy Bob Thornton tries to pull off the same trick in a Santa suit, while upping the profanity quotient, but fails miserably because his character is so woefully underwritten that his shtick becomes frustratingly tiresome after about 20 minutes. Or to hear him put it, “Shut the fuck up, you fucking retard.”

Rarely am I compelled to use such language in a review, but its such an integral part of the film that it seems disingenuous not to fucking mention it. Surely there are films with a higher quotient of vulgarity, but Bad Santa uses it in such a fucking way to be noticeable at every goddamned moment. Fuckin’ Disney execs have even come out and saying how “shocked” they are at this film distributed under their fuck-all Dimension banner. Sure, after they read the script, greenlit it and saw dailies for over a year. Please. Go shit in someone else’s lawn because this one is already fertilized.

Thornton’s character, Willie T. Soke, is a fucking souss-and-a-pint. To label him an alcoholic would be a compliment. For 30 days in the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Willie and his fuckin' dwarf associate, Marcus (Tony Cox) get hired by a department store, pose as their Santa and his elf and then rob the place blind. Going on their seventh year together, its less a wonder how they haven’t been caught but how the continually disshelved and Christmas-spirit-lacking Willie gets fuckin’ hired in the first place or even manages to keep the job for the full stretch without getting complaints from parents for berating their kids, trashing the joint or pissing himself in full view.

The latest mall manager (John Ritter) thinks he may have slipped up when Willie immediately mistakes questions of “performance” with his “fuckstick”. Of course, firing a goddamned black midget at fucking Christmas time may not sit well, so he asks his head of security (Bernie Mac) to check the newbies out. Once again, things that could have been brought to his attention YESTERDAY!

Willie miraculously lucks out though in finding a wide-eyed, snot-infested, wedgie-prone pudgy kid (Brett Kelly). Not that he feels lucky to spend time with any kid, but this one lives all alone with a clueless grandma while dad is out “climbing mountains” thanks to a little embezzling. It’s already implied, GODDAMMIT, that this kid who calls Willie “Santa” will somehow teach this Grinch the spirit of Christmas and a better movie would have capitalized on turning that gushy Christmasy feeling into a unmitigated, dissident satire. But it’s all just F-bombs and uncomfortable exchanges posing as dark humor that even the most cynical of small hearts will find themselves wincing at. So go fuck yourself.

It’s repeatedly dropped that Willie had a less-than-stellar childhood, so his hard-drinking bitterness has a cushion on which to rest blame. But either tap into that darkness or create a convincing arc that an audience can adapt to. Willie is an unlikable fuck. And few things make me laugh harder than someone preaching hard truths to the innocent. Telling one kid who sneezes chocolate ice cream onto him to get the fuck away is funny. Calling the tenth kid a retard ceases to share the same humor. One moment, Willie is berating the oblivious kid, the next he feels a little sorry for his actions. Then he lashes out at him even further and then is surprised (and angered) when the kid refers to himself as a “dipshit loser.” The screenplay (by Cats & Dogs scribes John Requa & Glenn Ficara) is almost as out of whack as Thornton’s facial hair which appears and disappears with the frequency of his character’s outbursts.

Maybe it’s all in the casting. Bill Murray was originally cast as Willie and to see Murray on screen is to laugh just at his presence. Perhaps it would have softened the fuckin’ vulgarity and elevated the Willie character to the level of director Terry Zwigoff’s last heroine, Enid, in Ghost World (one of 2001’s best films). She too was an outsider, looking at the world with a cynical bitterness in her eyes and we applauded when she called out people for what they were. Thornton’s Willie is just a mean bastard whom we can’t sympathize with and only laugh with about 25% of the time.

Bad Santa isn’t without its share of big laughs, many of which provided by Tony Cox who has played everything from an Ewok to the limo driver who went head-to-foot against Jim Carrey in Me, Myself and Irene. His character is the most well-rounded as the brains and the voice of the operation with a wife (Lauren Tom) who makes her way through each store compiling her Christmas list. It’s Cox’s matter-of-fact exchanges with both Thornton and Bernie Mac that gets the film its best moments. The late, great John Ritter is in the movie for about eight minutes (completely disappearing late) but gets in some priceless reaction shots for a worthy swan song to remind us what a great comedian he was.

Bad Santa walks a very thin tightrope between outright unpleasantness and the blackest of humor. For a movie containing vomit, nauseating eating scenes, anal sex, a rather gruesome murder, betrayal and cops plunging eight bullets into an unarmed victim, it’s something of a Christmas miracle that there are any laughs at all. But there are and for some that may be enough. And for those who always wanted to see Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham of TV’s great Gilmore Girls) play an inconsequential slut with a Santa fetish (“fuck me Santa, fuck me Santa”, etc…) then Bad Santa is the movie for you. If you think A Christmas Story took the kid-hating department store Santa too far, then it would be best to skip this. At least, that’s one reason cross off on the naughty list.

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