In my Korean review written in December 2008, I warned to my blog readers: “If you don’t want alcoholism, robbery, urination, lecherousness, R-rated words, Santa fetish, sex, homophobia, stalking, groin-kicking, blackmail, treachery, and some bizarre way of playing a pinball machine in the Christmas movies, I sincerely recommend you to stay away from this movie”.
I was not kidding, and my warning about Terry Zwigoff’s dark cult comedy “Bad Santa” is still effective at present. This is still one of the meanest Christmas movies, and it is also one of those hilarious movies that make me laugh a lot while my eyes are rolling for the things happening in the story. The movie is uncompromising with its materials, and it pulls lots of laughs by sticking to that attitude from the beginning to the end. Even when it arrives at “happy ending”, it never loses any bit of its vicious sense of humor while literally giving us a middle finger. Don’t even talk about Christmas spirit. It has already completely mortgaged it and then thoroughly liquidated it.
For some, Christmas is not so cheerful time, and Willie(Billy Bob Thornton) is one of them. What the hell, he is always morose and drunk all the time. He is such an unpleasant case study of the mixture of self-hate and self-destruction that you cannot help but look at him with awe and disgust. As he admits to us in the opening narration, he is nearly at the bottom physically and mentally. His sexholic/alcoholic mind has been in the swamp named self-hate. His body has been being damaged due to constant drinking and smoking. And most of what come out of his mouth are not nice things to hear. You probably feel sorrier for his poor liver than him.
He is depressed, and he considered suicide before. But he is always drawn to the work he cannot easily refuse. Whenever Christmas is coming, he works as a Santa Clause in the department store with his dwarf partner Marcus(Tony Cox). No, this is not his real job. He is in fact a good safe-cracker, and, when the holiday season is near over with lots of cash in the department store safe, he and Marcus rob the safe.
Over many years, they have robbed many department stores in this way and managed to elude the police by selecting a new target every year. However, this time, maybe it is not a good time for Willie. He has reached to the new bottom while working as a Santa, and that exasperates Marcus, who is serious about their cover as well as their real job. Furthermore, his misdemeanors happen to draw the attention of a store investigator Gin(Bernie Mac), so the situation becomes more complicated. Plus, some overweight kid(Brett Kelly) also focuses on Willie for a different reason.
That is just the start, and the story gets darker and meaner after that. But it gets funnier along with that. With the soundtrack playing familiar classic pieces that you might hear in the department stores around Christmas, the movie gives many cringe-inducing moments, and I think one of them is probably inspired by the scene from “Silent Night, Deadly Night”, a repellent slasher movie featuring another naughty(and murderous) Santa. It is indeed shocking, and the movie does not deny that, but I have to say it is one of the funniest scenes in the movie while effectively working as a good punchline.
Terry Zwigoff’s movies(“Crumb” and “Ghost World”) are unconventional ones, and “Bad Santa” is no exception. The people surrounding Willie are not someone you expect from conventional Christmas movies. Marcus tries to be practical unlike his partner, but he is as foul-mouthed as Willie. In case of that kid who fixates on Willie, he is not an adorable little boy at all. He seems mentally abnormal. His obsession is as creepy as that of a stalker. The kid’s parents are absent for different reasons, and he lives only with his senile grandma(stiffly funny Cloris Leachman) in a big suburban house.
Willie has no hesitation about using the kid’s obsession at first, but, while residing in the kid’s house, he begins to feel something he has never felt before in his heart for a long, long time. As a man with unhappy childhood, Willie feels sorry for the kid’s desperate loneliness. By “helping” the kid, he feels like he accomplishes something for the first time in his life. In case of his sex life, he begins relatively more meaningful relationship with a woman names Sue(Lauren Graham), who has a Santa fetish. Sue also likes the kid, and, under the same roof, they start to look like a warped alternative family.
That does not mean the movie turns soft in the end, and neither does Billy Bob Thornton’s memorable performance. Thornton does not hesitate to unfold every repellent sides of his utterly unlikeable character in front of us while throwing himself into pure wretchedness. According to Zwigoff, Thornton was constantly drunk on the set, but Thornton did not lose the control, and the result is a comic equivalent of Harvey Keitel’s legendary performance in “Bad Lieutenant”. Both movies have a repellent hero who has given up the hope of rehabilitation, and chooses to go down further toward the abyss, and then is flabbergasted by the possibility of the redemption. “Bad Santa” is happier one of the pair because it is a comedy, but, as Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “the ending is happy in the same sense that a man’s doctors tell him he lost his legs but they were able to save his shoes.”
Thornton is supported well by good supporting cast. Kelly is well-cast as a creepy kid. From his first appearance, you will immediately understand why Zwigoff insisted on casting him. Tony Cox does more than holding his place beside Thornton with his profanity-filled lines, and Graham provides a small, warm kindness despite the kinky aspect of her character. John Ritter, who died before the movie was released, is a department store manager who is very sensitive to political correctness. And Bernie Mac, who is sadly no longer with us now, is also funny as a greedy store investigator who wants some cut in Willie and Marcus’ robbery.
“Bad Santa” is a truly twisted comedy. It may be too savage or weird or offensive to your taste. However, if you understand how it willingly charges into the dangerous territories for black comedy, I’m sure you will get a good amount of laughs from it. It goes without saying that this R-rated movie is definitely not for the kids, but, for the adults like us, it has malicious hilarity that can be savored during these dark, cold winter nights. Adding some high-level naughtiness to Christmas spirit with no syrup is never boring.
Footnote: This is the review based on the uncut version(99min), “Badder Santa”. The original version is 91min, and Director’s cut version released on Blu-ray along with the uncut version later is 88min. I believe “Less is more” in case of comedy, but the uncut version is good enough to make me laugh many times. I heard the director’s cut was more judicious and effective, and I’m looking forward to watching it someday.