Friday, December 9, 2016

Review: Bad Santa (2003)

Bad Santa (2003)

Rated R for pervasive language, strong sexual content and some violence (unrated version reviewed)

Score: 4 out of 5

Bad Santa is the fucked-up anti-Christmas movie we all needed. A pitch-black comedy with an utterly loathsome, irredeemable sack of shit as the "hero", it sets out early on to defile every precious memory you had of jolly old St. Nick. At least half of the laughs are as much from cringing at the events on screen as they are from laughing at the circumstances. It's about plumbing the depths of human depravity and the reactions of everybody else to them -- and through it all, finding a surprising amount of humanity even at the bottom of the barrel. If you like your humor sick and wrong, then this is something to get you in the holiday spirit.

Our protagonists are Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) and Marcus (Tony Cox), a pair of crooks who have a particular groove: every December, Willie takes a job as a mall Santa with Marcus as his elf sidekick, using their jobs to get the lay of the land from inside, and on Christmas Eve, the two of them rob the place for a massive haul that will cover their expenses for the next twelve months. Willie always talks about retiring on his share of the earnings, but as Marcus is all too aware, it always ends the same way: with Willie blowing all his cash on booze and strippers, forcing him to get back in the game every time. This year, the two of them are at a mall in Phoenix, Arizona, miles away from anything resembling snow or wintertime cheer, where the mall manager Bob Chipeska (John Ritter) and security chief Gin Slagel (Bernie Mac) immediately grow disgusted with Willie's uncouth behavior, and start to suspect that he and Marcus are up to something. When police search his motel room for anything incriminating, Willie shacks up with Thurman Merman, a boy living with his senile grandma on account of a dead mother and a father who's in Club Fed for embezzlement, and strikes up a relationship with Sue (Lauren Graham), a sexy bartender with a Santa fetish. As Willie and Marcus' plan continues to move forward, Gin starts to wonder if he should get a piece of their action, while Thurman and Sue learn, in a decidedly unorthodox way, the true meaning of Christmas.

Billy Bob Thornton is absolutely perfect as Willie, a loathsome layabout who honestly deserves every terrible thing that happens to him over the course of the film. He's the absolute last person who should be working near children, a barely-functional alcoholic who's more than happy to bend over and rail anything with a pulse, who talks casually about sex and drugs in the presence of Thurman and assaults the kids who are bullying him, and who is, lest we forget, a professional crook. Thornton had me cringing throughout, as every appearance of his has him doing what is absolutely the worst possible thing he could've done in that given situation. The supporting cast is also a hoot, with Tony Cox's Marcus being a guy whose reaction to his partner Willie's behavior is basically that of anybody who has to put up with his shit, Lauren Graham's Sue making for a fun barmaid with a heart of gold, and two great comic actors who this world lost too soon: John Ritter (for whom this was his final live-action film) and Bernie Mac. Ritter plays Bob as an uptight, gosh-dolly, stick-up-his-butt manager who can't believe that someone like Willie even exists, while Mac's Gin is a mean-spirited son of a bitch who is, in many ways, a more "respectable" version of Willie who's managed to channel his bitterness into serving the other side of the law. The most important of the supporting cast, however, is young Brett Kelly as Thurman. An overweight dweeb who's relentlessly bullied by his peers and implied to have some form of developmental or social difficulty (though it's never stated), the absolute last thing Thurman needs is the absentee parenting of a grandmother who does nothing but watch TV all day while she slowly slides into senility. This kid could've been the target of some utterly repulsive gags that I would've admittedly laughed at (because the comedic writing in this film is that good), but which I would've hated myself for doing so later. Remarkably, however, he is almost never the butt of the joke. He takes to Willie as the only actual parent he's had in years, and he's revealed to have a lot of hidden depths -- he's not flunking out of school (though he's not doing great either), and despite initial impressions, he knows that Willie isn't really Santa Claus, but doesn't care. He's a great character stuck in a shitty situation, one who surprised me the first time I saw this film.

Of course, if it's humor you're looking for, this film delivers. It's got a very dark sense of humor, packed with jokes about anal sex, alcoholism, petty crime, bratty kids, murder, and characters acting like assholes, and while it's never a downer, it's not particularly light either. It saves its meanest jokes for deserving targets, particularly the protagonist and his partners in crime, constantly pushing the line of good taste. Willie is lewd and crude, and with few exceptions, the people around him aren't much better, and from that we get sex, vomit, public drunkenness, violence (one scene in the climax is a great way to ruin someone's childhood) F-bombs galore, and more sex. It's a parade of utter debauchery almost from start to finish, as every character either says or does ridiculous crap or reacts in horror to it. Anybody who's known layabouts like this will immediately recognize Willie and Marcus in those people, in ways that can get perhaps too close for comfort.

The Bottom Line:

Bad Santa is a really, really good Christmas movie, though it's not the sort you'd show back-to-back with It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story unless you're a really sick-in-the-head parent. Once the kids are in their rooms writing their letters to Santa, throw this on and have a blast.

No comments:

Post a Comment