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Blogvent Day 18 – Bad Santa (2003,USA)


Director: Terry Zwigoff               Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Lauren Graham, Brett Kelly, Bernie Mac

It must be an interesting job being a department store Santa. By interesting I mean horrible. Retail at Christmas is hard enough but I can’t think of a more challenging task than spending your days in the run up to Christmas contending with the spolied children of hundreds, perhaps thousands of parents all clamouring to get something out of good old Saint Nicholas. I recently got a taste of this myself when I was called upon to step into the breach left when a would be Santa pulled out of a kid’s Christmas party. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t apprehensive* about it but I’d also be lying if my apprehension didn’t have its roots in Billy Bob Thornton’s portrayal of safe cracker turned Santa Willie in Bad Santa.

In cahoots with his little person accomplice Marcus (Cox) Willie plays out a once a year scam where the two get a job as a department store Santa and his elf, using this as a cover to case the joint for a daring Christmas Day robbery. It’s a highly profitable line of work but Willie’s prospects are limited by his alcoholism, womanising and general mental instability, much to the distress of Marcus. Things come to a head on their latest job when the pair’s plans are threatened by a combination of the Chief Of Security for the store (played by the late Bernie Mac) and an unusual relationship between Willie and a more or less abandoned kid (Kelly) who Willie grudgingly takes under his wing.

It’s a riot of foul language, fierce hangovers and general tastelessness as Willie, burned out by his hollow existence and living through the misery of his horrible childhood consistently offends everyone in his path, treading water until his big score. This tortuous pattern starts to crack though when Willie encounters a sad little kid, bullied by everyone and more or less abandoned thanks to his father doing time for accountancy fraud, who manages to find the chinks in Willie’s emotional armour and make him question his lifestyle. This is reinforced by barmaid Sue (Graham) who not only has a Santa fetish but actually falls for Willie big style and between them they start to change his world view from curmudgeonly cynic to something altogether more human.

Ultimately the plot is a Dickensian “reclamation”, with Willie being introduced to the “true spirit of Christmas”, the joys of selflessness and love and generosity overwhelming the darkness and cynicism in his heart with warmth and happiness. Of course to get there we are treated to a beautifully vulgar exhibition of deplorable behaviour, made all the worse by the fact that it’s being perpetrated by Santa Claus. Violence, debauchery, self soiling – nothing is below the acceptable standards Willie sets for himself. Vulgar and puerile it may well be but it’s also bloody funny.

As an exercise in anti-schmaltz it is an absolute triumph, a wonderful antidote to the usual saccharine sentiments of Christmas movies and yet it retains sufficient Christmas spirit and sufficient redemption that you never doubt its credentials as a Christmas movie. The performances are excellent, Thornton is the perfect embodiement of the anti-Santa and provides an excellent spot of narration too. Bernie Mac’s role as the Chief of Store Security is probably one of his best, understated and very funny and a suitable legacy for a man who died far too young in 2008. He may have been in some turkeys but his performance here is superb. The same applies to the rest of the cast. Brett Kelly is worth a mention for his portrayal of the hapless, bullied child that provokes Willie into a fundamental change of spirit. He holds his own with the adult cast and perfectly suits his role.

Darkly humourous and tragic with it, Bad Santa is definitely one of the better Christmas films of the last decade although the fact it has aimed itself squarely at an adult audience has certainly given it an extra layer of credibility in my eyes. A contemporary Christmas classic, this should definitely be on your agenda every December.

*In the end I needn’t have worried. As it turns out, kids are far more interested in getting their mitts on a present than in the reality or lack thereof of the man in red. In fact, I was a little disappointed that all my effort and preparation counted for nought in the end as the kids were too fixated on the gifts to pay me much heed.

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