Movie review by Greg Carlson
“Bad Santa” could have been a really excellent movie. With its relentless profanity, ruthless social agenda, and cynical bite, Terry Zwigoff’s film gleefully wallows in its own misanthropy. Along the way, however, the old cracks of “script by committee” begin to show and the last few scenes negate all that has come before by violating the established tone. Of course, this only proves that Hollywood has a difficult time working outside of convention, but for people who go to the cinema every week, that is no surprise. Yes, “Bad Santa” can be blisteringly funny, but the downside is a list of problems that ultimately land the movie on the naughty list.
Billy Bob Thornton, all too willing to prove again and again that he is one of film’s most fearless performers, plays Willie, a broken-down, alcoholic waster whose only income arrives annually when he and his partner Marcus (Tony Cox) pose as a department store Santa-and-elf team in order to pilfer cash, jewelry, furs, and Manolo Blahniks after hours. The scam has worked well for years, but right away one can see that Willie is at the end of his tether. Constantly drunk, Willie alternates between urinating in his Santa suit and hissing contemptuously at the children unlucky enough to sit on his lap.
While Willie continues to punish his liver, he meets up with bouncy bartender Sue (Lauren Graham), a directionless young woman with a kinky Santa fetish (which is the only thing that could explain why she would be attracted to a filthy, malodorous souse nearly twice her age). While the pair forms an unlikely bond, Willie crosses paths with another loner, an overweight, elementary school-aged misfit initially known only as “the kid” (it would not be fair to give up his name; it’s one of the big laughs of the movie). Played perfectly by Brett Kelly, the kid is a withdrawn sad-sack attended only by his near comatose grandmother. He sees Willie as a potential friend and confidante. Willie sees him as an easy mark.
Director Zwigoff, who has directed the wonderful documentary “Crumb” and the winning adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ “Ghost World,” clearly has a thing for oddballs who live on the edges of society. His purposefully ugly depictions of suburban homogeneity add much to “Bad Santa.” Where his previous movies had character to spare, however, “Bad Santa” is surprisingly light on depth and subtext. This could be the fault of screenwriters John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, but in any case, one longs to be able to get to know any of the movie’s potentially interesting inhabitants beyond the superficial presentation offered.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of “Bad Santa” is the twisted idea that families might wander into the movie by mistake, assuming it is some kind of companion piece to “Elf” – at one screening, a grandmother and her grandson squirmed uncomfortably every time Willie unleashed a new torrent of obscenities or fornicated in the department store dressing rooms. In fact, none of the actors shy away from the most contaminated, abusive coarseness imaginable; the late John Ritter plays a small-minded manager and Bernie Mac draws plenty of laughs as a polyester cowboy in charge of mall security. All of the vulgarity – which is always very funny – would have been more resonant had it been in the service of a movie with something worthwhile to say.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/1/03.