Bad Santa Review
Every Christmas Willie Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) and Marcus (Tony Cox) find employment as a store Santa and his elf sidekick. And in amongst all the glitter and the yo-ho-hos, they’re casing the joint. At the end of the season they rob the store after hours and spend the rest of the year in the sun living off the proceeds. Then they reunite for the next Christmas and the next store. Willie and Marcus can’t stand each other: Willie is semi-permanently drunk, given to pissing himself and swearing at the kids and is stuck with a partner he can’t get rid of for PC reasons, as he’s a black dwarf. But this will all change, thanks to a woman with a fantasy of being shagged by Father Christmas, and a put-upon kid.
Based on an idea by the Coen brothers (who executive-produce), Bad Santa is a bracing blast of foul air. This is a seasonal movie with something to offend everyone…and very funny it is too. Zwigoff and writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa avoid the yawning trap of sentimentality. Importantly, Billy Bob Thornton doesn’t play Willie for an ounce of obvious sympathy. Wearing a permanent five-o’-clock shadow, he exists in a state of constantly hung-over pissed-offness, but you can sense the self-loathing hardwired into his soul. Brett Kelly, as the overweight, bullied kid, plays him for unimagined degrees of nerdishness. He might as well have a sign saying KICK ME attached to his back, and his name (Thurman Murman) sets the seal on it. Tony Cox, given a much better role than I suspect is often on offer to little people, seizes the opportunity, and some of his exchanges with Thornton are hilarious. Lauren Graham is fine in a rather less dimensional role as a woman with a Santa fetish. Possibly the weak link in the film are the scenes between security chief Bernie Mac and store manager John Ritter (in one of his last roles). That’s not to say that the they’re badly acted, not at all, but they seem a little out of place. This may be explained by the fact that they weren’t in the original version of the film at all, but were added at the studio’s insistence to pad out a short running time. (A true director’s cut would be shorter than the theatrical version rather than longer, though with MPAA cuts restored. More about that later.)
Since his breakthrough with the documentary Crumb, this is Terry Zwigoff’s second fiction feature following Ghost World. He’s rapidly becoming a director to watch, with a sensibility that could easily have been at odds with the Hollywood mainstream. It’s fair to say that his eye for a script and his ability with actors is at the moment greatly in advance of his visual flair, though the drab look of Jamie Anderson’s camerawork is I’m sure intentional. But there’s certainly intelligence and ability there, and I look forward to seeing what he does next. In the meantime, we may have had it a year late, but Bad Santa is to be relished. Perhaps it should have been released a little later, when Christmas is over, as it’s guaranteed to kill off any lingering feelings of peace on Earth and goodwill to all men and all that.
A brief note: the version of Bad Santa under review is the version released in US cinemas with a R rating, after cuts by the MPAA. It has not been cut further by the BBFC and has been passed with a 15 certificate. To be honest, there’s nothing in the film that hasn’t been passed at that rating before (there’s quite a lot of strong language, but none of it begins with a C). A reference to anal sex – you’ll know what I mean when you see the film – might have made the film an 18 a few years back, but that’s about it. I don’t know what was cut by the MPAA, and I haven’t seen the extended Unrated Edition (reviewed by Kevin Gilvear here), but I doubt the extra material would trouble the BBFC unduly.