I don't know about you, but I am SICK TO DEATH of all these holiday movies that have families getting together and chaos ensuing. After a while, they all sort of blend in to one another and look no different from what we saw the year before. These are movies that shamelessly manipulate audiences into feeling joyful during the Christmas season, but that only works for so many people. Then there are those other movies that preach against the commerciality and consumer frenzy that has come to define December 25th for everyone. But ironically, these same movies are also released by studios that are infinitely eager to make a huge profit from them and start a new franchise.
Yes, it is great to see films that really get to the true meaning of Christmas providing that you have a couple extra dollars for the movie for yourself and your significant other (don't forget the popcorn and other artery clogging goodies). So like romantic comedies, I tend to avoid these "festive" cinematic experiences whenever they arrive at a movie theater near you.
That's why I really love "Bad Santa," a movie I have been meaning to see for ages and finally got around to watching during the Christmas of 2009. It is free of all the sentimentality and sugar coated characters that all but mar your typical holiday movies, and that’s 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 even have the time to watch it. Billy Bob Thornton is probably on his naughty list anyway.
Billy Bob Thornton, one of the best character actors ever, plays Willie Stokes, a department store Santa who is anything but jolly and fat. You are more likely to see him drinking backstage, making out like the womanizer he is and doing other things that are utterly lacking in sensitivity. Seeing him actually talk with the kids makes you wonder how the hell he manages to keep a job. Willie cusses at them when they sneeze in his face, and he never lets them ask about what presents they want. One is more than enough when it comes to sitting in his lap. I kept waiting for one of those kids to pee on him as that happens with every department store Santa, but it turns out he is the one doing the peeing (watch the movie and you'll see what I mean).
But as cruel and Scrooge-like as Willie Stokes is, there is one person that he clearly despises more than all the kids and their snooty parents (not to mention those mall cops who keep making fun of him). That one person is himself, and his demeanor is all but a reflection of that.
Soon however, the truth comes out about Willie. Along with his midget partner in crime Marcus (Tony Cox), they rob each mall they work at blind. They wait till all the shoppers and employees have left the mall on Christmas Eve, then they disable the security system (which doesn't look too secure to begin with) and go on a shopping spree of all the things they want and couldn’t afford if they had regular day jobs. Willie's specialty is opening up 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 the two thieves away when their work is done. After that, they take the rest of the year off and live off of the money and valuables they have illegally acquired. Marcus goes back to living with his wife while Willie goes off to Miami to get endlessly drunk and somehow get lucky with the ladies.
We catch up with these two a year later when they are employed at another mall and planning their next big heist, the last one they ever plan to do. Being a comedy (one of the blackest ever), things do not go as planned.
Thornton is such a hoot as Willie Stokes. While his character does many things that should have gotten him fired from this Santa job on the first day, Thornton does give this endlessly crude character a heart that is covered with a big slab of cynicism. And amazingly enough, Thornton also makes Willie somewhat sympathetic. This comes about when he meets a young pudgy kid who you'd think would teach him about the meaning of Christmas, but who is really just stalking him 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 drunk he is around him.
Speaking of the kid, whose name is Thurman Merman (but Willie basically calls him "The Kid"), he is played by Brett Kelly. Now Kelly is not anything like those clean cut kids in Disney movies that look unrealistically beautiful, and I found that be ever so refreshing. Thurman is a short, pudgy little guy who is unpopular, doesn't have any friends and an easy target for bullies who have nothing better to do than stand in front of a mall and harass those that are different from them. What I really dug about Kelly is how dryly comic he is in “Bad Santa.” He never seems to be the least bit fazed by anything that Willie does in front of him. Willie gives him a ride home and then proceeds to steal from his dad's safe and then steals his car, and Thurman responds to this by waving at him and saying, "bye Santa!" Seriously, nothing about Willie seems to bother Thurman in the slightest!
We come to see that Thurman lives alone in this big house with his senile grandmother who is barely dealing with reality as it is. With this fraud of a Santa (ironic, isn't it?), 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 Willie to play with Thurman and make out with a local bartender ("Gilmore Girls'" Lauren Graham) in the hot tub while the grandmother watches television listlessly. Still, it's a dysfunctional relationship between these two opposites. Willie ends up kicking over a game of checkers when he loses, to which Thurman replies:
"Wanna play again?"
"Bad Santa" was directed by Terry Zwigoff whose previous films include "Ghost World," "American Splendor" and one of the best documentaries of the 90's, "Crumb." Terry is interested in those personalities that are far from normal and who have been damaged by life. With "Crumb," he took a close look at a man who had dealt with abuse and found an outlet through his creation of comic books that 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 that was originally written by the Coen Brothers.
Also, Zwigoff has a blast digging at the banal culture that the malls of America have to provide us. While they were havens for us as teenagers, they eventually became tiresome places to visit as adults because all the stores and food courts soon became indistinguishable from one mall to the next. From the anal 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 that they don't care much for anymore.
In addition to Thornton, all the other actors in the cast are perfectly chosen. Tony Cox is hilarious as Marcus. You quickly realize that 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 a bartender named Sue who starts up a relationship with sad sack 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 really 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 and shocking death. As mall manager Bob Chipeska, Ritter reminds 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. For that, 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 he 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. Both Ritter and Mac are still missed, and they left us way too soon.
"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 that so many get sucked into seeing, and it makes us root for a character you would never root for in real life. This should definitely stand as 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...