It's good to be Bad


Dec. 3, 2003, midnight | By Dan Greene | 17 years, 6 months ago


There's something fundamentally wrong in seeing a man in a cheery Santa suit, even if it is Billy Bob Thornton, stumble drunkenly to his seat in the mall or beat up a bunch of middle school skater kids. It seems like a perversion of everything good and clean in the world. "Why is Santa doing that?" you might, understandably, ask.

Because it's very, very funny.

Terry Zwigoff, director of the sardonic Ghost World and the just plain weird Crumb, brings his satiric skills to the fore with the dark comedy Bad Santa. Although Zwigoff's touch is evident throughout, if a film about a shady Santa is to succeed it must have a believable, hilarious, and thoroughly corrupt Chris Kringle. Fortunately, Thornton succeeds and crafts a scoundrel named Willie who is so incredibly foul and dislikeable that somehow you end up loving him by movie's end.

Bad Santa follows the story of two holiday conmen, Thornton and his `elf' assistant Tony Cox, as they perpetrate a Yuletide robbery of a suburban Phoenix mall. Every holiday season the pair set up camp at a different mall across the country (in their profession moving around is something of a necessity), pose as a mall Santa team, learn the layout of the mall, and then rob the place blind after closing time Christmas Eve.

A wrench is thrown into their plans when, somewhat predictably, Thornton meets and is soon forced to shack up with the bright-eyed and innocent Brett Kelly, who unflinchingly treats the dirty old man as Santa. Complications also arise from the mall security chief Bernie Mac, who rules his domain with a well-manicured iron fist.

Thornton seems born for his role as the crude, rude Willie. He makes it seem natural to see a gruff, middle-aged man in a Santa suit downing shots at the bar. Thornton's exasperated, derisive expressions as he takes kids onto his lap at the mall appears genuine; Santa really looks like he has something better to do and is still feeling those drinks from last night. "I feel like I've finally done something with my life," Thornton says after he beats up a bunch of kids for the Kid, his version of getting into the holiday spirit.

Although the bond between Willie and the Kid does grow over the course of the movie, it never exactly gets warm or fuzzy. To not end up syrupy sweet is refreshing for a holiday movie and makes the Christmas spirit that does, grudgingly, emerge from Thornton's gruff exterior in the mad dash conclusion all the more meaningful.

The supporting cast also chips in with solid and generally laugh-worthy performances. Cox's deadpan delivery balances well with Thornton's coarse humor and occasionally—okay a little more than occasionally—vulgar physical comedy. And there are very few things in this world funnier than a seriously foul-mouthed Christmas elf.

John Ritter delivers a hilarious performance as the straight-laced, timid mall manager. His open shock and efforts to find a translation for Thornton's many, many curses are truly funny, and his light comedic touch contrasts well with Thornton and Mac, who can seem heavy-handed at times. The performance is a fitting memorial to a superb comic actor.

Mac however, seems unable to find his comic place in the film. With Mac, Zwigoff tries pretty much every other type of humor that wasn't already taken by the other actors. He takes a very feminine approach to his personal hygiene and is a voracious smoker, among other things. But Mac does not get to do what he is best at; just letting the jokes fly in a rant or a rave, as he did in Head of State and so masterfully does in his stand-up. While the security chief could have become just as interesting and clever a character as Ritter's, he fails to develop over the course of the film.

And while the subversion of Christmas is a fine idea, Bad Santa does go a little overboard at times. The Kid slices up his hand and comes running into Thornton who tries to help by pouring vodka on the wound. The blood flows copiously and the injury isn't explained until later. The minds behind Bad Santa apparently haven't yet mastered making grievous self-injury funny; it just comes off as disturbing.

There is also a sudden dwarf-related plot twist at the end that does not gel with the rest of the film. The resulting chase scene is fine, but it all just comes out of nowhere. Zwigoff should not have worried about having to make the plot interesting, that's not the most important piece of a movie about a hard drinking Santa Clause.

Let's get it out in the open: Bad Santa is crude, rude, and extremely immoral. But because those things clash so tremendously with the traditional holiday spirit that surrounds Thornton and company (just as we didn't expect to see murder and mayhem tied into kid's TV with Death to Smoochy), the movie works. If you're not averse to a little Yuletide depravity, then Bad Santa will provide plenty of laughs.

Bad Santa is rated R for pervasive language, strong sexual content and some violence.



Tags: print

Dan Greene. Dan, alright fine, VJ, is proud to be a senior at Blair and a member of the best paper. Ever. He's really funny, trust him. As managing sports editor and ombudsman he enjoys sports and ombudsing. Dan also enjoys literature, soccer and crude humor. One … More »

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