Bad Santa review by The Grim Ringler

Once upon a time Santa was kicked out of his magical castle when Mrs. Claus found out he had slept with her sister. This was a sad occasion for St. Nick. So, being that he had nowhere to go, he took up residence with a young orphan boy who wanted nothing more than to make sandwiches for old St. Nick. Mr. Claus though, in a state of utter depression since having been dismissed from the family home, could think of nothing he wanted to do more than getting drunk and having lots of unnatural sex with husky women. But perhaps with the love of a little boy, a talking walnut, and a wooden pickle Santa can…heck, who are we foolin’? Christmas is doomed.

Bad Santa is director Terry Zwigoff’s follow-up to the brilliant Ghost World and, while I was skeptical upon first reading about the movie, it couldn’t be more akin to his dark take on comedy. To Zwigoff what is funny is the foolish pain we inflict on ourselves even while we know we are doing it. His is the humor of a gravedigger and I for one love it. This is certainly not a movie for one and for all, far from it in fact, but if you are brave enough and your taste in humor runs towards the dark, then friend, do I have a tale to spin ya.

Billy Bob Thornton is a down on his luck alcoholic with no hope or future. If he was smart he woulda killed himself earlier in life, but heck, not that he thinks of it, he still might. In life he is no one. Nothing. But he does have one skill that makes him special – he can crack safes. So every Christmas he and a partner and crime who plays the part of his elf, work as a Santa and elf team at a different mall during the holidays so they can figure out the schematics of the place and rob it come the eve of the holidays. It has worked every time but the tension between the two is getting thicker every year. Santa is spiraling downward, unable even to pretend to care what children want for Christmas without being drunk, and his elf is getting very frustrated with his partner’s lack of professionalism. Swearing off booze and a dangerous lifestyle of sex and debauchery, old St. Nick breaks his partnership with his elf and moves to Florida determined to open a bar on the beach, sober up, and get his life square. A year later he is tending bar at someone else’s beachside tiki bar and has so much debt and misery that he has no choice but to go crawling back to his partner when he calls to tell him to go to Arizona for a new job. And so it starts all over again – new mall, new mall management (the uptight and funny-while-he’s-there John Ritter), and another month of drunken debauchery. While out one night at the bar the Claus meets a female bartender with a fetish for Santa and, after some very interesting car sex, two lonely souls have connected. It takes far more than the promise of regular sex though to pull Santa from his spiral though and so the routine continues. The mall manager though is very suspicious of his new St. Nick, who he has heard swearing and has seen having anal sex with a ‘big and tall’ woman in that department of the mall. The security chief seems nonplussed though as he sucks on oranges while listening to his boss tell him his woes (the mall security is brilliantly played by Bernie Mac) but deep down is very interested and begins a bit of a background check on these two new bringers of holiday cheer. When Santa returns to his flea-bag motel room one night after drinking he sees that someone is searching it and bails, heading instead to stay with an overweight little boy that had come to see him at the mall and who seems so delightfully simple minded that he won’t mind putting Santa up for a few days. It also turns out that the kid’s dad is off ‘climbing mountains’ (read: in jail for embezzlement) and his grandmother mind as well be dead for all the good she does. And suddenly Santa is living in the lap of luxury – living in a mansion, driving a Mercedes, having hot sex in the Jacuzzi, and happily drinking his life away. As the days wear on though and Christmas gets nearer, Santa, despite himself, is getting more and more attached to the little boy he is staying with, hating him at first and all his questions about Santa and his reindeer and then seeing how lonely and screwed up the kid is. Things get a bit more complicated though when the security chief finishes his background check and approaches Santa and his elf with a bargain – their scam goes on as planned but the chief gets half of the money and whatever he wants of the merchandise. That’s the deal. Reluctantly the duo takes the offer and finish their plans for the heist. As the heist is coming together though, Santa is falling apart, going so far as to try to kill himself before being interrupted by the boy and then, seeing the boy has a black eye, goes out to beat up the local bullies that did it. And suddenly Santa cares about the kid. But just as Santa is beginning to think that maybe there is still some humanity left in him a double cross from his partner puts everything he has come to care for, including himself, in jeopardy and on the verge of falling to nothing.

The funniest thing that I can say about this film, and the most ironic thing, is that it’s a pretty darned good holiday movie, though not one you’d watch with the family. Director Zwigoff has shown in his two previous films (Crumb, Ghost World) a keen eye for the beautiful mess that Mankind can be, but never does he make light of the pain of Man. What he does is show us how very ridiculous we and our beliefs can be and how in many cases they can only serve to push us further away from ourselves. And as is the case in many films, if the part of the bad Santa is handled by anyone else the film falls apart. Thornton holds it together because despite the despair and anger, there is humanity to him still, it’s just that’s it’s buried beneath a mountain of liquor bottles. Bad Santa is the kind of film I always hoped people like John Waters would make, in which the natural weirdness of people is what creates the freak show, not the unnatural quirks that we are less likely to connect with. You laugh at the notion of a woman with a Santa fetish because it really is the kind of thing that is weird enough to be true. But the characters in this film are more than a collection of their idiosyncrasies – they are living, breathing people who just happen to be really weird and screwed up, and that’s why you come to love them. The best example of this is perhaps the boy that adopts Santa as his new best friend. The boy, all but an orphan in the film, acts far stupider than he is, doing such a good job of it as to come across as mentally retarded, and it is only when Santa rails at him for calling himself stupid that we get a glimpse of who lies beneath the mask. And it is his unconditional love of a man he knows is not Santa but that wants to believe he could be Santa that cracks the thick skin of Thornton’s character.

And I would be remiss not to mention the brilliant acting of the ‘background’ characters such as the head of security and the mall manager. As the mall manager John Ritter is as meek as could be, not wanting to upset anyone or anything and looking for spin after spin in order to keep everyone happy. There wasn’t much to the part but what there was Ritter ran with. And Bernie Mac is amazing as the tough-guy security chief that dresses like a cowboy and acts like Clint Eastwood. There is a jaw-dropping verbal duel between Mac and the man that plays the elf in the film and it is one of the funniest scenes of smack talking I have ever seen. The other great turn goes out to a background actor that is in the film but for a moment but who almost steals the movie. He is one of the people who was in the over-rated Office Space and after seeing Thornton in a bar his character attempts to, umm, take out some rage shall we say, on old St. Nick.

As well as this film is made though, and it is made very well – but there is a problem, and that problem is the ending. I love it, and it fits the tone of the film, but it seems so contrived and, well, fake that it could only happen in a movie. And it does take you out of the film for a minute, but ya know what, you went along for the ride this far, so in the long run who cares? It’s sort of like School of Rock in that it shouldn’t work but does on the strength of the writing and the performances. As surreal as the movie is, it works, and it shouldn’t but dammit it does. With the sure-handed direction of Zwigoff, a director that knows and appreciates the darker side of human comedy, and the acting of Thornton, who completely gets this down on his luck merry-maker, this is sure to be a cult classic that plays the cable channels around the holidays for many, many years to come. Great movie, through and through.


8 out of 10 Jackasses
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