Bad Santa (2003)
'Bad Santa' is one of those films I'd heard mentioned on many an occasion but which I had very little knowledge of. I thought it'd be decent enough, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is in fact a terrific black comedy!
Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie, a washed up, drunk, miserable, cantankerous middle-aged man who, every year together with his dwarf friend Marcus (Tony Cox), works as a department store Santa in preparation for robbing the store. Willie's expertise lies in safe cracking, while Marcus is the brains of the outfit. After an opening heist, Willie resolves to quit and straighten out his life, only to find himself back with Marcus the following Christmas at a new store in Arizona where the manager (John Ritter) and head of security (Bernie Mac) watch over them with a wary eye. Naturally, this year is a bit different - Willie encounters a young woman with a Santa fetish, Sue (Lauren Graham), and starts a relationship with her. He also encounters a fat young loner kid (Brett Kelly) who grows attached to him and sees him as the 'real' Santa, much to his annoyance. Circumstances lead to Willie moving into the kid's house (where he lives with his grandmother); the kid's naive and innocent belief in Christmas despite Willie's uncaring behaviour persists, and Willie finds himself unwittingly drawn to the boy.
It may sound like a feel good film, and in a sense it is. It has, at some level, a sentimental heart and embraces the usual Christmas spirit of caring, love, and friendship, and it is in many ways a story of redemption. But that's all under the surface. Taken at face value, it's a mean spirited, foul mouthed, salacious, irreverent, violent, and altogether hilarious little film. It's got weird, messed up characters who are trying to get by in an unforgiving and uncaring world. Much of the humour derives from their anger and their oddball relationships with one another, though there is some terrific physical comedy as well. It's fast paced and runs at a lean 90-odd minutes and there isn't a dull moment in there. The production design and photography also make this a very colourful and visually arresting film. And apart from one sickeningly violent moment (hint: rib cage cracking), writer-director Zwigoff manages to prevent the mean spiritedness from overwhelming the film.
Billy Bob Thornton is perfectly cast as Willie, and he carries the insouciant world weariness of the character while maintaining a very subtle streak of humanity that bubbles just under the surface. Brett Kelly as 'the kid' is also excellent in a very atypical child performance - this isn't one of those precocious movie kid characters. He actually comes across as quite dim witted and innocent but at the same time under no illusion about the realities of the world around him. Tony Cox's exasperated Marcus is hilarious throughout, as are Ritter and Mac, particularly in their scenes together where Mac's security chief toys with Ritter's hapless manager. And finally there's the adorable Lauren Graham who doesn't have that big a role but exudes the right amount of weirdness to convince us that she would hang out with a person like Willie.
'Bad Santa' is a surprise package that a lot of people apparently weren't able to stomach because of its ostentatious crudity; their loss, because this is a superb film that has a lot of heart and is, in a twisted way, ultimately truthful to the spirit of Christmas. It's a Christmas film for adults that is crude, rude, and funny.