Life for suicidally depressed Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is as bad as it can get. Literally hopeless, he wastes his liver at a rate designed to waste himself before he needs to shave again. His one job each year is to play a bad and mean and grumpy department store Santa, in a joint scam with Marcus (Tony Cox) a dwarf [or is it midget], who dresses like one of the elves and whose tall Asian girlfriend has a permanent shopping list. But that's the sideline: Willy and Marcus specialise in safe-cracking their client stores around the country, after the kiddies have all gone home. Willy's drunken Santa, who often pees in his pants, is confronted by one overweight kid (Brett Kelly), who is so stoic he seems freaky. But what this kid manages to do is jolt Willie into one moment of redemption - just when it's too late. But then that's typical bad luck and bad timing for a bad Santa like Willie.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Bad Santa is the most fun you'll have while watching someone destroy themselves. It's an inspired piece of filmmaking about depression and desolation in the human spirit, yet it manages to resolve in a twisted sort of redemption which saves the audience jumping off the kerb in a mass suicide at the end of the film. I laughed more at Bad Santa than at many lighthearted comedies, and at the same time I was able to take it seriously. And as we know, the secret of good comedy is a serious subject (that's not original, but I was reminded of it recently by the visiting John Plowman, Head of Comedy at BBC TV). It's also the first screenplay that successfully uses prolific and extensive expletives (150 in all, I'm told); successful meaning the use of every expletive is entirely legit, in the sense that the expletives are the natural colour of the language these characters use, and they are used in context. But of course, if you take offence at bad language, avoid it.
Billy Bob Thornton doesn't parody the drunken, pathetic figure of a man playing Santa to eager kids: he plays it with enough pathos to steam up your glasses. (He also used real alcohol...) He's a broken, wretched man, crumpled like paper into ball by fate. We don't get into the details much, except to learn about a broken home, a nasty father whose only decent act toward young Willie was to teach him how to crack safes.
By the time self loathing has become second nature, Willie is well on the way out of his life. His partner in crime, the suitably midget-sized Marcus, tells him often and loudly what a pathetic shit he is. As if Willie needed reminding. But then along comes a kid who has a similar burden; his accountant father is away on a mountain expedition (read jail) and his mother is somewhere else. His loony granny looks after him, while local kids bully and taunt him. He has no defence, except his stoic shield. Willie, ironically enough, tries to make him stand up for himself, and in the process engages with the kid.
He also engages with a bartender called Sue (Lauren Graham), who has a sexual thing for Santas. She helps prepare Willie for the one act of kindness he is able to pop out of his psyche. The script weaves these characters and situations into a cohesive whole while revealing the warts in Willie's character, but at the same time avoiding judgement. It's a bleak, dark, penetrating study, made seemingly light by the wackiness of it, but never indulgent or simplistic.
The cry/laugh meter goes berserk in this film, and the excellence of the technicals takes us into Willie's world with haunting power. Produced by the Weinsteins, wholly owned as they are by Disney, the film sat in distribution limbo. For some people the film will play as a vulgar comedy, but for me it's a multi-layered drama with a crackling sense of dark humour. There is more to Bad Santa than meets the ear.
Review by Louise Keller:
You'd better watch out! Bad Santa is coming to town. You've never seen the man in the red suit like this before. When did you last see Santa puking in the snow? This Santa smokes, drinks, fornicates and curses like there's no Christmas. There's safe-cracking equipment in his sack and he can't stand the little darlings who sit on his lap, asking for that special Yuletide gift. 'Whaddya want?' he scowls through his sneezed-on woolly beard, 'A snot rag?'
Conceived by the Coen Brothers and directed by Ghostworld's Terry Zwigoff, Bad Santa is wondrously black, wildly irreverent and simply hilarious. This is a script that goes all the way. The characters are not overplayed, but remain true at all times, even in their wildest moments. Not intended for anyone who is easily offended, the film is full of profanities and pretty much everyone is targeted - from the disabled, to dwarfs, to the elderly, to coloured folks and minority groups.
Billy Bob Thornton's Santa is as sour as a lemon. He offers no goodwill to all mankind, just a cynical disdain and disrespect to everyone, including himself. And Thornton is sensational as Willie, the unshaven, vulgar man who can't help but be vile. Overwrought with anger-management issues, even the subservient alarm-clock is victim to his rage, which is hurled at the wall. 'Everything about you is ugly,' Marcus, his coloured, midget Elf side-kick tells him. Tony Cox as Marcus is terrific and there's something disquieting about the relationship between Willie and Marcus, as 3 foot tall Marcus organises and almost mothers him. Marcus is the audience warm-up as he gives a sense of anticipation to the children who are eagerly waiting in the department store to sit on Santa's lap.
The department store section head played by John Ritter is shocked when he finds Willie with his pants down in the oversize women's section, but Willie then meets up with Sue (Lauren Graham, lovely), the barmaid with a Santa complex. Bernie Mac is fun as Gin, the colourfully dressed head of security who wants a piece of the action, while Lauren Tom is a riot as Marcus's mail-order girlfriend. Great use of music too - well known classical pieces as well as sentimental Christmas songs.
But the heart of the film rests in the relationship between Willie and the retarded, fat kid, played by Brett Kelly. It's a fine performance, beautifully directed by Zwigoff who firmly keeps the tone in check. As the scales tip from black humour to pathos, we are deeply moved. I even felt a trickle of a tear start to form. And of course, there's a moral that unfolds as the story strands find their natural conclusion. I haven't laughed so much in ages. It's naughty, but not at all nice. Bad Santa is really out there.
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BAD SANTA (MA)
CAST: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Lauren Graham, Lauren Tom, Bernie Mac, John Ritter, Ajay Naidu, Lorna Scott
PRODUCER: Sarah Aubrey, John Cameron, Bob Weinstein
DIRECTOR: Terry Zwigoff
SCRIPT: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jamie Anderson
EDITOR: Robert Hoffman
MUSIC: David Kitay
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Sharon Seymour
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Columbia TriStar
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 25, 2004
RIVERSIDE SNEAK PEEK PREMIERES
A program of premiere screenings of new movies prior to their commercial release
on 4 consecutive Tuesdays - March 10, 17, 24, 31, 2015 - at Riverside Theatre,
Curated & presented by Andrew L. Urban, discussion to
follow with special guests. Briefing notes provided.