Screen Reviews

Bad Santa

directed by Terry Zwigoff

starring Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Lauren Graham, Hayden Bromberg, John Ritter, Bernie Mac

Dimension Films


Looking for a post-Thanksgiving dose of holiday cheer, a feel-good family film to jumpstart the season? Bad Santa is not for you. But, if a nonstop litany of profanity doesn’t faze you, or if your idea of “Christmas spirit” is a bottle of good hooch and South Park’s Christmas Special, Billy Bob Thornton’s latest vehicle is bound to be right up your alley.

In Bad Santa , Thornton plays Willie Stokes, a chain-smoking, booze-guzzling department-store Santa with a penchant for plus-sized women and anal sex – hardly a stretch for the versatile actor. Besides being a self-loathing, suicidal, staggering drunk, Willie is also an accomplished safecracker.

In a different city every year, Willie and his dwarf accomplice, Marcus (Tony Cox, Me, Myself & Irene), have met in December to work as a Santa-and-elf team. While Santa endures the weight of child after child on his grimy lap, Marcus cases the joint; on Christmas eve, he uses his small stature to hide in the store until after hours. Then, the 36” burglar turns off the alarm system, lets in Stokes, and the pair clean up.

However, child-hating Willie detests the Santa role; his ability to function has deteriorated with every holiday season, to the point that he cannot sit on Santa’s throne unless he’s stinking drunk. Willie wants to quit, but 11 months of drinking and whoring keeps wiping out his funds, forcing him to team up with an increasingly impatient little person, who is the mastermind of the operation.

Out of cash, Willie agrees to one last holiday heist, in Phoenix. But there’s a few twists this time around; he meets an open-minded, vivacious bartender (Gilmore Girls’ Lauren Graham) with a deep-seated Santa fantasy, a fantasy Willie soon fulfills. However, unlike the rest of dubious conquests, this hard-drinking woman is a bit of a kindred spirit.

The alcoholic imposter also encounters a boy he simply refers to as “The Kid,” an obese, mentally-stunted, snot-nosed lad of about nine years of age, a Santa-obsessed boy without a mother, and whose father is doing time for embezzlement. Of course, the dense Kid (Hayden Bromberg) believes that his mother is visiting some sort of magical land, and that his father is off climbing mountains somewhere. Pitifully, the outcast lives alone with his brain-addled grandmother (played by Cloris Leachman) in a small mansion, waiting for daddy to return. When The Kid inadvertently saves Willie from being sexually assaulted by a conflicted, deranged homophobe outside of a bar, Willie gives the boy a lift home. Looking for a new place to crash, the costumed Willie decides to check into the kid’s digs. The Kid truly believes that Willie is Santa Claus, you see – no matter what outrageous lies (“Santa’s beard fell off because he was with an unclean woman”) the bottle-nursing bastard may tell. Meanwhile, the store’s mild-mannered manager, (John Ritter) upon catching a whiff of Willie’s Bombay Gin aftershave – and after stumbling upon Santa giving a customer a lesson in the vertical snake dance in a changing room – expresses his concerns to the head of security (Bernie Mac). Intrigued, the detective – like Willie, a chain smoker – begins an investigation.

Like Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, Willie eventually discovers that he has a tiny heart – however, it takes a while for it to grow. As Christmas Eve nears, the bad Santa spirals deeper and deeper into an alcoholic stupor. At the end of one shift, for instance, finding himself unable to control his liquor-filled bladder any longer, Santa simply pees his filthy red pants at the throne, seconds after the last child departs.

Will Willie be able to pull himself together for one last score? Will the store dick get wise to the thieving pair? Can Willie’s new girlfriend – or the bewildering Kid – turn his tortured life around? You’ll be able to guess the answers; however, there’ll be no time to sense any of the film’s predictability; you’ll be too busy trying to control your own bladder – or trying to regain your seat after sliding to the sticky floor – in fits of uncontrollable laughter. Bad Santa is the funniest, foulest film that executive producers Joel and Ethan Coen have ever been associated with – and that’s saying a lot. Ritter and Mac are sorely under-utilized; a shame, considering their talents. No matter, for Thornton virtually carries this well-paced jewel, Bill Murray’s “Scrooge” is a well-adjusted creampuff compared to Billy Bob’s endearlingly vile Willie.

Crass commercialism is very effective in spreading their artificial brand of joy and giddiness around; it’s refreshing to now have an antidote like Bad Santa handy in the silly season.

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