I’m not sure if it has become obvious or not at this point, but I definitely prefer the atypical Christmas films. So many are overly corny, overflowing with sentimentality that often renders the viewer immune to it by the film’s climax. Or at least, that’s how it works for me.
It should come as no surprise then that I think rather highly of Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa, a black comedy that centers on a chain smoking, alcoholic, butt-sex craving crook that also happens to play Santa around the holidays. Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie, who together with his partner Marcus (Tony Cox), pose as Santa and his elf every year at a popular department store with the sole aim of ripping it off come Christmas. The cast is pretty star-studded for a comedy, featuring the late John Ritter, the also late Bernie Mac, Lauren Tom, and Cloris Leachman. Ritter and Mac are particularly hilarious in their small, but central roles (Ritter’s facial expressions in one scene alone are particularly memorable) as store manager and security, respectively. Lauren Graham, not really known for comedy, is also effective in the role of Sue, a character drawn to Willie on account of a Santa fetish who seems oblivious or unconcerned about Willie’s vices.
The supporting cast is great, but Thornton is the real star as Willie. He’s a pretty terrible human being, but has a tiny shred of decency in him which makes him likable in spite of his shortcomings. His banter with Cox, a lot of which feels improvised, is a one-liner’s delight as the two trade insults at various parts of the film. Thornton really shines though when he’s opposite child actor Brett Kelly, who plays a dim-witted but well-meaning kid who lets Willie shack up with him and his senile grandma (Leachman) while his dad is in prison and mom in heaven. Willie never even asks the kid for his name (he finds out when the kid hands him his report card in search of praise that his name is Thurman Merman), but their unlikely friendship gives the film a touch of heart as Willie finds himself looking out for the kid, even though he doesn’t want to. A lot of the scenes featuring the two actors were never intended for the film. After the producers got a look at the initial cut, they requested Zwigoff shoot some additional scenes that make Willie at least somewhat likable, fearing audiences just wouldn’t care about the character. Normally, meddling produces are a bad thing in my book, but some of the film’s funniest scenes were shot and added following this directive. For that reason, I suggest viewing the theatrical cut first before checking out Zwigoff’s cut (if you have the Blu Ray release, Badder Santa, both are included).
The film never loses site of what it sets out to do, or forgets that its title is Bad Santa. While Willie does find some redemption in the film’s climax, he remains strongly a bad human being for the film’s duration driving the black comedy at its most vulgar. This isn’t a film for everyone, but if you like your comedy un-PC and need a break from the sappy Christmas films and TV specials, then Bad Santa has what you need. The sequel, just released this year, is more of the same. Given that over a dozen years elapsed between films, this feels right as I personally enjoyed catching up with these characters after all of the elapsed time, however improbable the plot seemed. If you’re on the fence this year about seeing Bad Santa 2, I can safely recommend it under the caveat that if you liked the first one then you’ll probably find plenty to laugh at with the sequel. Although it should go without saying, the original is the better of the two.