|Rating:RATED R for Vulgarity, Sexual Content, Language, and much Vomiting
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac, Lauren Graham
Directed By: Terry Zwigoff
Billy Bob Thornton stars as the titular character in Bad Santa, a movie that’s laced with a blatant simplicity. There’s no attempt at in-depth plot development, and many characters’ names are so rarely used that we become accustomed to calling them by their in-film nicknames. Usually a film that’s this lacking in detail would lose my care, but Bad Santa makes it blatantly obvious that it doesn’t want us to care that much.
In the film’s world Billy Bob’s character is named Willie, but he’s much more often called Santa, even during sex. His girlfriend is simply his girlfriend (Or Mrs. Santa’s Sister at times), and I didn’t know she had an actual name until I saw the credits. Even the film’s most endearing character becomes known only as “The Kid”, although when it’s revealed that his name is actually “Thurman Merman” I longed for much more usage of it. The point seems to me that Bad Santa is trying to be a movie about people that stand out on their own, not about people who can be classified by their names. They exist in their own self-contained universe, outside the realm of your average film characters.
At the beginning of the film we meet our Bad Santa through a pain-filled voice over while he sits alone in a bar. Though it’s a cheap way to develop the character, it works surprisingly well, and within five minutes we understand that Thornton’s character is not the type of person we’re going to like much. We soon find out that he’s not only a crude drunk, but also a professional safecracker, who has been robbing department store safes with his partner Marcus the Elf for years. Marcus happens to be an “African American Small Person” (or Black Midget for the unpolitically correct crowd), which helps them to get away with anything they want on the job. Because we all know you can’t fire a Black Midget without a war.
Anyway, Santa and Marcus make their way to Arizona for a gig, and upon arrival find their paths changing. The store’s ultraconservative manager (played by the late John Ritter) is frightened by Santa’s foul mouth and extracurricular activities with large women, and enlists the services of his security chief (an underused and, in the end, unnecessary Bernie Mac) to help get rid of the duo. Santa also meets both a girl who has a Santa fetish (Lauren Graham) and “The Kid” (Brett Kelly).
The former relationship is never fully deconstructed, but the latter is the film’s heart and soul. The Kid is the kind of loser we’ve always come to love, wandering around in his own special way, so persistent and inquisitive that it drives anyone around him insane. He realizes that Santa is not the real Santa, and therefore decides to follow him, saving him from an attack by Samir from Office Space. I hated this worthless scene, but the rest of the duo’s relationship is either hilarious or touching. The Kid simply wants to help Santa, although his constant questioning rarely makes Santa happy. When he gives Santa a Christmas present we’re shocked by his level of care for this man who he has been shrugged off by so many times. Of course, The Kid is not popular, and this leads the film into an unnecessary cliché. Bad Santa tries to teach him to fight, in a scene that is more deserving of MTV’s Jackass or an American Pie film.
I know I’m rambling a lot, and there seems to be little balance in what I’m pointing out. The thing is, that’s the impression the movie left on me. At times, Bad Santa is a hilarious picture, and at times it’s a surprisingly meaningful one. Director Terry Zwigoff has created a wonderful set of characters in one of the bravest stories put on film. The help of the Coen brothers on the script is pretty evident at times, and adds a lot to the humor and the story. But there are also times when the film goes too far, with childish or immature gags like I mentioned above, or with so many vulgarities that one can’t help wondering if this much is really necessary.
I guess I liked Bad Santa. It was funny, which a comedy should be, while being true to its own goals. However, I can’t flat out recommend it to you, due to the unbalanced plot and the over the top nature. It’s definitely not a film for everyone, and in fact I doubt it will find much of an audience at all. The eccentric filmgoer may find it brilliant, or be disappointed by its drops into silliness, while the average filmgoer could (and probably will) find it insulting. At any rate, Bad Santa accomplishes what it wants to, and that’s worth praising in film no matter what its aims are.