say your piece

158 20 NOVEMBER 2003
'Bad Santa' Brings Merry, Raunchy Tidings
By Jeremy Mathews

“Bad Santa”
Dimension Films
Directed by Terry Zwigoff
Written by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra
Produced by Sarah Aubrey, John Cameron and Bob Weinstein
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Bernie Mac, John Ritter, Lauren Graham, Cloris Leachman and Lauren Tom
Rated R
(out of four)

There’s a vulgar, alcohol-soaked gift under the tree this year. As a crude, gross-out Christmas comedy, Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa” gets better as it goes instead of melting into sap in the third act like so many other Christmas comedies.

Our hero might learn a little about Christmas spirit, but when he does he still delivers lines like this: “I beat the shit out of some kids today. It made me feel good about myself.”

The man is Willie, an alcoholic criminal whom kids know as Santa at the end of each year—in a different state. His only annual income comes from the money and loot he and his partner (Tony Cox), who acts as Santa’s elf, steal from the department store or mall on the last day of the store Santa job. The duo’s marketing edge with the malls is that they work cheap and Willie’s partner is a little person. (The characters in the film never know whether to call him a dwarf or a midget.)

Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie, who might say he’s going to turn his life around at the end of the caper that opens the film, but believes it as much as the film’s audience. Before the opening sequence ends, the film already shows him vomiting in an alley and urinating in his pants.

The only useful thing he knows how to do is crack safes—a skill he learned from his drunken, abusive father—and he’s been getting slower at it since he started drinking more. Cox’s character basically arranges the whole operation each year, and Willie lets a bunch of kids sit on his lap and tell him what weird toy that they want (“a Fraggle Stick,” for example) until it’s time to crack the safe.

Some of the early gags—with Thornton swearing at kids or hitting a car windshield with a casually thrown liquor bottle—are a bit obvious, but the film eventually enters hilarious territory with, and this is a rarity that usually comes from desperation in comedies, the introduction of a young boy.

The kid (Brett Kelly) is a young, heavyset boy who doesn’t have a clue how the world works and is picked on by skater bullies. His odd actions might come from a mental disability, but could also come from what has so far been a traumatizing childhood. His mother is dead and his father is currently serving the second year of a three-year “trip to the mountains.” His guardian is his senile grandma (Cloris Leachman), who knows how to ask people if they want sandwiches, but not how to judge if they should be in the house.

After a rather disastrous meeting with Willie’s disgusting Santa, the kid follows Willie to a bar and saves him when a mentally ill man tries to rape Santa. Willie gives him a ride home, and when he sees the mall detective (Bernie Mac) going through his hotel room, he decides to move in with the kid and his grandma. “Mrs. Santa caught me fooling around with her sister,” he tells the constantly curious kid.

Thornton’s performance is wonderfully subdued, and the experienced actor works well with the young Kelly, as the kid barrages Willie with questions or shows him his chocolate advent calendar.

The relationship is rather sweet, but the film never indulges into syrupy sentimentality. Willie remains a drunk throughout the film, and the effects the kid has on him are subtle and funny. Such changes include a boxing lesson that elevates the kick-in-the-balls joke to unseen levels and Willie’s extended, not quite sex-only relationship with Sue (Lauren Graham), a bartender who’s turned on by Willie’s costume because she has a Santa fetish. (“Keep the hat on.”)

Mac and Cox are also amusing in their supporting roles, and work splendidly together in a wonderfully one-sided negotiation scene.

“Bad Santa” will no doubt offend many, many people as the film earns its R rating with lots of crude humor and cursing, but the filmmakers earn hard laughs with a close attention to character and detail. It might not be believable that the prudish, nervous mall manager (John Ritter in one of his last performances) doesn’t manage to fire Willie after one of his many bad moves as Santa, but we overlook stuff like that to see in which crazy direction the film will go next.

Zwigoff, who made the excellent documentary “Crumb” in 1994 and 2000’s “Ghost World,” both of which were among the best films of their respective years, brilliantly executes the slapstick scenes and throws in some of the social satire of his slightly more serious “Ghost World.” He loads the film with joke after joke, assuring that if one doesn’t make you laugh, the next one will.

That is, as long as you aren’t the type of person who waits for a speech that explains the true meaning of Christmas.

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