Bad Santa (2003)
Bad Santa (2003)

Genre: Crime Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 31 min.

Release Date: November 26th, 2003 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Terry Zwigoff Actors: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Lauren Graham, Brett Kelly, Lauren Tom, Bernie Mac, John Ritter, Alex Borstein, Cloris Leachman




repping himself for his horrible job as a mall Santa, Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) grabs a few drinks at O’Hara’s Pub before drunkenly heading to work. Once at his gig, he annoys the customers, ignores the children, continues to drink, and even urinates on himself. But this profession is just a front; after the mall closes, Willie is aided by his diminutive “elf” assistant Marcus (Tony Cox) and their getaway driver Lois (Lauren Tom) in robbing the place – including the large safe tucked in the back office.

After scoring thousands of dollars in the heist, Willie proclaims that he’s retiring. But after several months in Miami, he returns once again to the only trade he knows: grand larceny. Flying back to Phoenix to meet up with Marcus, the partners target a new establishment, the Saguaro Square. But this one has a much stricter security man, in the form of Gin (Bernie Mac, exhibiting every contorted facial expression in his playbook), as well as a perpetually perturbed, very timid manager, Bob Chipeska (John Ritter). Stuck in his typical, inebriated stupor, Willie can barely manage to get through each day as they scope out the joint – a mission made more complicated by a pesky kid (Brett Kelly) and a seductive bartender (Lauren Graham).

It may have a Christmas setting and Christmas themes, but it opens with a strikingly dispirited piano nocturne, which grandly sets up the contrasting notions that pepper the entire film. “I’ve seen some pretty shitty situations in my life…” insists Willie as he narrates his miserable existence, which includes a stint in prison, two failed marriages, and getting drafted by Lyndon B. Johnson. Within the first couple of lines, it’s evident that “Bad Santa” will be an extreme, offensive, wholeheartedly anti-Christmas picture, with dialogue that is outrageously bitter, hilariously abysmal, and occasionally even satirical.

“Bad Santa” may be a comedy, but it derives laughs from ample helpings of awkwardness and weirdness. From sexual fetishes to the slow, noisy eating of an orange, to all sorts of caustic insults and instances of self-loathing, the script is inundated with emotionally crippled characters with an overabundance of psychological problems. Willie is, in fact, so hopelessly despicable that it makes little sense for him to acquire a love interest – unless, of course, she’s as damaged as he is. With the addition of the coincidental child, a most unorthodox family unit is created, which might have been even more deplorable if this arrangement wasn’t placed in the hands of director Terry Zwigoff (“Crumb,” “Ghost World”), who has a knack for crass material and pathetic antiheroes.

Although the pacing isn’t as tight as it could be, and the leading man is painted out to be beyond redemption (he’s so disgraceful he even rips off the kid who saves him from an accosting), there’s a glimmer of hope in his eventual usefulness as a morbid savior and tool of vigilante justice. His journey of humanization (or the softening of a terribly hardened heart) is sometimes genuinely poignant, even when it’s surrounded by preposterously reprehensible conduct. Though it’s riddled with repetition, numbing amounts of cursing, a handful of failed jokes, and uncomfortable gimmicks (as well as a few moments of sublime juxtaposition and booming symphonies), it all comes together in a rather momentous, purposeful finale, which sheds light on the underlying concepts of regaining or recognizing self-worth (complete with a fantasy-oriented atonement of sorts). “I beat the shit out of some kids today. It made me feel good about myself.”

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10