Title: Bad Santa
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Lauren Graham, Lauren Tom, Bernie Mac, John Ritter
Plot: Conman and safecracker Willie (Thornton) and his dwarf partner Marcus (Cox) seemingly have the perfect con. Posing as a shopping mall Santa the pair case each mall in preparation of Christmas Eve when they rob the stores within. However their plans threaten to come undone when Willie’s numerous vices look set to consume him.
Review: Probably the best known of Zwigoff’s back catalogue no doubt that’s to the controversy which is always surrounds painting Santa in anything but the traditional light and Thronton’s performance as the titular Bad Santa is certainly no exception. Here he gives us a truely morally devoid character who cheats, steals and spends most his time blind drunk, which really is kind of for starters as he constantly seems to find new lows to sink to.
Needless to say Zwigoff here is hardly giving us a film full of Christmas cheer or well much of any kind of cheer to be honest as this is a black comedy in only the darkest shades as here he unleashes a side which even the established fans weren’t expecting as was certainly the case for myself who was left kind of shell shocked by what I had just watched which honestly doesn’t seem to lessen even with repeated viewings, as Zwigoff positively refuses to lighten up the character of Willie and instead plunges him only into lower and often frequently more deprived depths.
Still things are not all doom and gloom as we do get the great scenes of Willie going through the
motions under his Santa guise, sarcastically responding to the lists wheeled off my the children who come to visit him completely unaware of his real intentions, much less his blatant lack of interest in anything they are saying and generally giving foul mouthed and sarcastic responses when he does. True the film could have worked without the hidden criminal intensions and instead just focused on Willie doing the job as bad as he does.
While his actions might question even the most hardened believer it seemingly doesn’t deter Thurman, an overweight kid aswell as hardly the shiniest pebble in the pile judging by his firm belief that Willie is in fact the real Santa. It’s a situation that of course Willie is more than happy to take advantage of as he sets up home in Thurman’s house where he’s lives with his senile grandmother who spends most of the film in a seemingly catatonic state. At the same time he also brings with him his girlfriend of sorts Sue (a highly underrated Lauren Graham) who has her own unique love of Santa. Of course the relationship between Thurman and Willie frequently provides many of the film’s most cringe worthy moments as Thurman makes constant offers of sandwiches while at the same time never showing the slightest hint of emotion to any of Willie’s foul outbursts he unleashes on him, while Thurman’s clear lack of any kind of contact or social interaction makes kind of sad to watch him being treated in such a way, especially when Willie is essentially supposed to be the guy we are supposed to be wanting to pull himself out of his self-destructive slump. However when faced with Willie stealing the chocolate from Thurman’s advent calendar after a particular heavy binge session it’s hard to not despair slightly, especially when it seems that Zwigoff is doing everything possible it seems to challenge the audiences love for this character.
Perhaps it’s only because the other characters in the film are as equally corrupt that we can view Willie as the lesser of the numerous evils on show here, with Marcus clearly only using Willie for his safecracking skills let alone the fact that he holds a certain amount of control over him being his only source of income despite his initial promises to go straight after the heist they pull at the start of the film, only for Willie as Marcus predicts to drink it away by the following Christmas leaving him back in the same position he was before. At the same time the duo now also have to deal with the attentions of security boss Gin (Mac) who despite initially following up on the suspicions of the prudish mall manager Bob (Ritter) soon sees an opportunity to get in on the score as he launches his campaign of blackmail against them.
Unquestionably this is Thornton’s movie who steals every scene he’s in which isn’t too hard when he’s either unleashing some foul mouth tirade (over 300 curse words to be exact while the director’s cut adds an additional 286!) or generally just fowling himself. How much of this was method though remains to be seen, especially when Thornton openly admits to spending most of filming actually drunk. Still considering Bill Murray and Jack Nicolson were also in the running for the role, only to drop out due to commitments to over roles, but now to imagine anyone else in the role. Frustratingly the rest of the cast are more hit and miss with John Ritter in what would sadly be his final performance coming off more awkward thanks to some horrible dialogue seemingly written to highlight his neurotic nature, only for it to frequently prove to be a source of irritation, while Bernie Mac is as funny as you generally find him as he wheels out his usual comedy style.
Honestly though even as a big fan of Zwigoff’s work I found this one hard going, mainly because of how dark a comedy it is and more so when Zwigoff is so unrelenting in how far he takes the film to such dark places that it would make even Todd Solondz question if he’d taken it too far. At the same time when this film works it really does and it’s a shame that the few outstanding moments are so drowned out by the darker ones. As such I would recommend watching it with at least something lighter on standby as chances are you’re going to need it by the end of this one.