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Bad Santa

Reviewed By Unfashionable Observer
Posted 12/11/03 17:06:57

"BAD SANTA is like Bob Clark’s A CHRISTMAS STORY for the post-modern age."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Crude, cruel, foul, obnoxious, demented, despicable, repugnant, hateful, nihilistic, and completely immoral. All of these words fairly describe the tone of Terry Zwigoff’s latest movie, "Bad Santa," starring Billy Bob Thornton as the miscreant man in red. But believe it or not, despite being all of those things, Zwigoff’s film is also one of the most heartwarming movies of the year. This utter contrast represents yet another inspired step in Zwigoff’s canon of great films about outsiders looking for a taste of personal salvation.

Willie (Thornton) is a sometimes-suicidal loser whose only passion in life is drinking himself to unconsciousness. He has no job, no family, and no really compelling reason to keep on living. In order to sustain his half-baked existence each year, he teams up with Marcus (Tony Cox)—a midget man who’s slightly more in tune with reality than Willie himself—during the Christmas season to work as a Santa-and-his-elf duo in shopping malls across the country. But of course, they don’t do it out of their sense of Christmas cheer. Willie happens to be adept at cracking safes, and Marcus has a gift for masterminding such operations. By working as the Santa-and-his-elf duo, they are able to rob the malls from the inside: They stake out the store, gain access to the back rooms, and eventually get away with over $100,000 each holiday season. Splitting it up half and half, it’s a good return on their month-long stints as ostensible purveyors of Christmas spirit.

As the title of the movie makes explicit, Willie is indeed a bad Santa. First of all, he’s never sober—on or off the job. But even if he were, we get the sense that his performance as Santa Claus wouldn’t be any different. Secondly, Willie manages to insult each of the kids who are unfortunate enough to land on his lap (which is, by the way, damp with his own urine!). When a quiet, portly kid with a cold gets his turn on Willie’s lap, the demented Santa asks, “What do you want for Christmas? A snot-rag?” Yes it’s mean, but it’s also funny has hell. Especially when you consider Thornton’s nonchalant coolness, coupled with a glint of drunken wackiness. Truly, Thornton has never been more comfortable in a film role, and it shows. Thornton himself has always had a reputation as an offbeat character all his own. This movie exploits that personality trait to the extreme, and it makes for the most offensive, foul-mouthed character to grace the big screen this year. And he is absolutely riotous.

Willie eventually befriends the “snot-rag” boy, perhaps out of a sense of pity, but more likely because the boy’s parents are rich, and nowhere to be found. The kid lives with his grandmother (who is senile) in a palatial house that is completely unattended by anyone but the 10-year-old boy. The fact that the kid is himself mentally unstable—as he seems to think (impossibly so!) that Willie is indeed Santa Claus—only adds to the temptation to take advantage of the situation. Indeed, Willie spends no time contemplating it, and is quickly found driving the kid’s father’s car and sleeping in the master bedroom, all the while humoring the kid in his delusions that Willie is the real Santa Claus.

Too good to be true? Perhaps. But that’s not the point. Willie and the kid end up sharing some genuine moments of friendship. Truly, those moments are rare, as Willie’s sarcastic bite seems to overwhelm all relationships he has with people. But when those rare moments of affection surface, they hit us like a truck, dislodging us from our self-complacency in the movie’s crude, nihilistic humor. The effect is powerful, quick, and at times even overwhelming—all due to the contrast between the acerbic tone of the movie, and those moments of curious vulnerability. Shockingly, such tenderness is reminiscent of that found in great holiday films such as Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Indeed, Bad Santa is like Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story (1984) for the post-modern age.

In Bad Santa, director Terry Zwigoff continues his streak of smart, disturbing, but ultimately touching movies about social outcasts searching for human connections. His other two movies—1995’s Crumb and 2001’s Ghost World—are nowhere near as overtly caustic as is Bad Santa, but they are nonetheless done in the same vein. In each of these three movies, the characters intrigue us because they are both odd, and bitterly sarcastic. The sarcasm might very well be a defense mechanism triggered by their oddities; however, when these characters finally let their guards down in instances of friendship or affection, they are shown to be vulnerable, emotional beings who are sometimes all too human.

For these small glimmers of naked humanity, we have Zwigoff to thank. We can only hope he graces us with more in the future.

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