Review: “Bad Santa” (2003)

Don't worry -- Mrs. Santa understands that !@#&@! happens when you party naked.

Willie T. Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) has a very reasonable explanation for why his Santa beard’s an obvious and cheap fake: “It was real, but I got sick and all the hair fell out.” When that answer doesn’t satisfy Thurman (Bret Kelly), the friendless wimp who’s latched onto him like a thirsty tick, Santa elaborates: “I loved a woman who wasn’t clean.” Apparently Mrs. Santa’s sister, though a tomcat in the sack, has a few … faults.

Shocking, isn’t it, to hear such frank, fresh talk in a holiday film? That all depends on your definition of “Christmas movie.” Terry Zwigoff’s warped “Bad Santa” is a Christmas movie only in the sense that it takes place in December. And there’s a guy wearing a Santa suit. And an elf and some reindeer. But all that noise about joy, peace, happiness, sugar plums and fruitcakes? That’s all been replaced by perpetually-recovering-from-the-night-before Santa, offering up pearls of wisdom that include: “Wish in one hand and shit in the other. See which one fills up first.” Sage advice indeed. Three sheets to the wind (a given) or stone sober (a rarity), Willie T. Soke is nothing if not philosophical.

“Bad Santa” brims to the top with such observations, shaped to twisted perfection by writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and delivered just as expertly by Billy Bob Thornton and the ace team of comedic actors who play off him. Talk about a match made in heaven — if there exists another actor better suited to play the boozy Willie than Thornton, well, I can’t name him. Thornton, with his craggy face, downturned mouth and vacant but vaguely menacing stare, nails the mixture of desperation and disgust at the core of Willie. Part of that desperation stems from his job: An expert safe cracker, Soke has created a highly profitable scam with fellow con man Marcus (Tony Cox, a potty-mouthed delight). Soke and Marcus, posing as a Santa-and-elf duo, work a different department store every Christmas. In less than a month they case the store, find the safe and rob the place blind on Christmas Eve.

Everything works fine until their latest scam in Arizona, where Willie’s constant drinking — as well as his tendency to diddle women in the plus-size dressing room and show up to work falling-down drunk — raises the eyebrows of the store’s fussy manager Bob (John Ritter, bringing a nice comic flair to his last big-screen role). Store security chief Gin (Bernie Mac) hears of Marcus and Willie’s plan and demands a hefty cut. Then there’s the matter of Thurman Merman (Kelly), a lonely weirdo who plops into Willie’s lap and then proceeds to stalk him. Ever the opportunist, Willie sees a chance to rob the house the kid shares with his grandma (Cloris Leachman). “Is she spry?” he asks, pulling on a face mask. She’s anything but. Before long, though, the house becomes a crash pad for Willie, somewhere to drink himself into oblivion and enjoy nightly hot tub sex with Sue (Lauren Graham), a bartender for whom a Santa hat is akin to Spanish fly.

The further we follow Willie down into his vodka bottle, the more clear it becomes that Zwigoff has no intention — ha! none! — of softening all this misery’n with a cocoa-and-candy canes last act. Zwigoff isn’t really a happy ending kind of director (see: “Art School Confidential,” “Ghost World”), so he never lightens the mood of sheer, abject hopelessness. In a way, that’s almost admirable, his stubborn refusal to change course. He means to make a bitter, bad-tasting movie about a mean drunk and he does it. The good news is that Zwigoff also makes this movie singularly entertaining. The razor-edged dialogue proves as uproarious as it is profane (Marcus to Willie as Santa: “You probably shouldn’t be digging in your ass”), while the actors — particularly Kelly, who’s all google-eyed creepiness, and Thornton, never better — turn in spot-on performances. These are people for whom “goodwill” is a dirty word. Considering all the holiday mush being peddled this time of year, that’s cheerfully refreshing.

Grade: A

11 Responses

  1. A excellent review – very funny, actually – and so fitting for Bad Santa (a film which quickly became one of my favorite Festive-period films). Thornton was perfect for the role – if there was anyone else that could have done it, I’m certainly stumped, although Dan Aykroyd or Bill Murray might have fit the bill if the film had been made in the 1980s.

    • I hadn’t thought of Bill Murray, but he’d have done a fine job … might have taken Willie T. Soke in a different direction. Murray might have made him a little more sadly comical, whereas Thornton really played up the “eating, sh*tting, f*cking Santy Claus” angle.

  2. I find it extraordinary that a film that can be mostly morally wrong, has such a sweet and endearing message. Not for the faint of heart!!!

    • And yet I keep recommending it to EVERYONE as my favorite Christmas movie. Inevitably the faint-at-heart friends — I have a few not nearly as twisted as me — hand back the DVD and give me dirty looks while slowly backing away.

      But yes, I agree — there IS a good message. It’s just buried under all that, you know, fornicating in dressing rooms and vodka and profanity.

  3. You are but one of the million people who has written a review praising the movie. I really should get around to seeing some day.

    • For once, I am happy to be marching among the masses! :) Yes, you must see “Bad Santa,” particularly some time around December when you’ve had enough of all the commercialism and the Hallmark sentimentality and when you believe you’ll jump off the nearest bridge if you hear “Feliz Navidad” one more time on your favorite radio station. “Bad Santa,” in combination with “Elf” and few more light-hearted Christmas classics, is what makes me look forward to Christmas every year!

  4. I really dislike ‘Elf.

    • You’re not alone. People tend to find it irritating or they love it. I fall into the second group because I think Will Ferrell does a good job, the writing is good and Peter Dinklage gets a cameo.

  5. Great review, and I love Bad Santa. I was just exposed to it late last year, and above all else the reason I love it so much is because amidst all the moral drudge and hatefulness is true comedy.

  6. [...] of parts can be dynamite comedy with the right actors (free shots to Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie T. Soke). Kasdan, however, seems to think audiences will find nastiness endearing because it’s [...]

  7. [...] “Bad Santa” fans, prepare to meet a kinder, gentler Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Indeed, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” is far removed from the booze-soaked, potty-mouthed desperation of “Bad Santa” (Ficarra and Requa penned the script) or the all-out insanity of “I Love You Phillip Morris.” Maybe one too many ass jokes prompted the duo to venture into calmer waters with ”Crazy, Stupid, Love.,” a romantic comedy with strong performances and several tongue-in-cheek jabs at rom-com gimmicks. Casting Steve Carell as Cal Weaver, a nice-but-oft-befuddled 40ish father and husband, was the first smart move (if not a stroke of genius, because who could play Joe Husband better than Carell?). He’s got the best face in the business for communicating bemusement and heartbreak, and rare is the actor who can locate humor in a moment of complete emotional devastation. For Cal, that moment is the dinner where his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) announces she’s cheated on Cal and wants a divorce. It’s one of those inherently human situations where the shock is too great to predict the emotional fallout. Cal’s so dumbfounded he can’t speak, leading him to roll out of a moving car to avoid any more of Emily’s confessions. Within a few days he’s moved into a grim little apartment and parked himself at a chi-chi local bar, yammering drunkenly about his troubles (Carell’s “I’m a cuckold” speech is hysterical) to anyone within earshot. Suave ladies’ man Jacob (Ryan Gosling, who proves adept at comedy) takes pity on this unfortunately dressed soul and offers him lessons on how to rediscover his masculinity (step one: ditch the sneaks-and-khakis getup).   Jacob and Cal’s unlikely friendship is a high point of “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” because it gives Carell and Gosling, both choice character actors, ample opportunities to play off each other’s quite different comedic styles. Carell is never better than when he’s playing a character who’s miles outside of his comfort zone (see “Date Night” or “Dan in Real Life”), and Cal Weaver is never less comfortable than when he’s trying to pick up women (Marisa Tomei has a fun cameo as Cal’s first post-breakup “score”). On the other end of the spectrum is Gosling, who tends to pick dramatic roles and do amazing things with them. His comedy comes from a place of self-confidence and trends toward random observational humor, such as his sheepish admission to new love Hannah (Emma Stone, delightful) that he stole his big “close-the-deal” move straight from “Dirty Dancing” (he uses the Bill Medley/Jennifer Warnes song and everything). That, really, is the appeal of Carell and Gosling as pals: They’re so dissimilar you’d never match them up as a funny guy pair, but together they’re terrific.   Not all the pairings in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” work quite so well, though. The subplot involving Cal’s son Robbie (Jonah Bob) and his infatuation with babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) is sweet but not particularly interesting, especially considering that Jessica has a raging crush on Cal. (The whole bit with her snapping nude photos to prove to him she’s not a kid is just awkward.) Kevin Bacon doesn’t generate much heat with Moore as David Lindhagen, the man who effectively broke up Emily and Cal’s marriage. Moore and Carell do have the sometimes weary chemistry of a long-married couple (their scene outside Robbie’s parent-teacher conference is wrenching). Still, even they can’t quite hold a candle to Stone and Gosling, whose budding relationship essentially runs away with “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” These two are dynamite together, and they develop a believable, tentative first-love kind of intimacy that’s a nice juxtaposition to Emily and Cal’s well-worn but deep affection for one another. Even when Dan Fogelman’s script takes a few missteps (like the Big Speech Ending), it’s these two relationships — one winding down, the other gearing up — that make “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” a cut above most romantic comedies.    Grade: B+ Eco World Content From Across The Internet. Featured on EcoPressed Wind could supply electrical power to portable data centers off the grid [...]

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