Bad Santa

Movie Information

Genre: Black Comedy
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Terry Cox, Bernie Mac, John Ritter, Brett Kelly
Rated: R

Let me make this clear: I didn’t dislike Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa. That said, I easily could have, since I was one of maybe six people on Earth who was underwhelmed by Zwigoff’s previous film, Ghost World, a movie so smugly hip, it made my head hurt. And Bad Santa is somewhat in this same vein.

Yet this film nonetheless constantly fascinated me — if not always in a good way. What it did not do is make me laugh — not once. (It didn’t seem to be doing a lot more for the smallish audience I saw it with, either.) And I’m willing to concede (based on the rave reviews of many of my colleagues, who seemed to find it hysterically funny) that I am just not hip enough for Bad Santa — at least as a comedy.

Comedy is subjective, and black comedy even more so. Done right, there’s almost nothing that can’t be made funny — as has been proven time and again, from Laurel and Hardy to Tony Richardson’s The Loved One, Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class, and Roger Avary’s The Rules of Attraction. But for me at least, Zwigoff did almost nothing right.

An abusive, drunken Santa is potentially a very funny idea. Indeed, a pie-eyed Monty Wooley Santa perched on a sleigh telling onlookers, “I hate you! I hate you all!” in the opening of the obscure 1942 film Life Begins at 8:30 is one of my treasured cinematic memories. But really, how funny is a wholly misanthropic, foul-mouthed, classless, crass, crude, suicidal Santa in a stage of alcoholism so advanced that one of the “gags” has him wetting his pants while sitting on his department-store throne?

Is Bad Santa outrageous? Sure. Is it funny? Zwigoff apparently thinks it is, which makes me not sure I want to know what his idea of tragedy is.

I suppose this is about what you can expect from a movie that starts off with Santa Billy Bob downing shot after shot of Old Grand Dad (if this is product placement, I question its effectiveness), talking about his lousy life, debating suicide, and finally ending up in an alley puking right next to the superimposed title of the film. Yet I wasn’t offended by the film. I was, however, put off by the idea that Bad Santa was supposed to be a comedy. And taken as such, I can think of few movies I have liked less; but taken as drama — which is the only way I can see the film — it’s constantly interesting in a purely Lower Depths manner. The material, however, is clearly geared toward the comedic.

Billy Bob plays Willie Soke — in an apparent nod to W.C. Fields and Egbert Souse (pronounced Sou-say) — a broken-down department-store Santa teamed with a dwarf named Marcus (Tony Cox). The pair operate a scam where they do their North Pole shtick in order to get inside stores on Christmas Eve and rob them blind, which is not a bad premise for a comedy. It’s the characterization that runs the comedic part aground — that, and the increasing unbelievability of Willie’s not being fired from the job in less than two hours. Obviously drunk, short-tempered and completely abusive, there’s just no way this character could pull such a scheme off — even if Marcus is the real brains behind the operation.

The year the bulk of the film takes place finds the pair working a department store in Phoenix. There — in between bouts of drunken stupors and performing a once-illegal sex act with large women in the plus-size dressing rooms — Willie becomes involved with a socially backward, overweight kid with no apparent name (Bretty Kelly), and a cute bartender (Lauren Graham) who’s essentially a good soul, but who has a strange sexual fixation on Santa Claus. Does this lead to the expected redemption common to Christmas movies? Not in any traditional sense, no.

Instead, the film’s filled with half-baked subplots involving Bernie Mac as a corrupt, chain-smoking, laxative-swilling, pedicure-obsessed security man, and John Ritter as the pathologically prissy and easily brow-beaten store manager. This all might be funny, but Zwigoff lays the quirkiness on with a trowel — to the point where any resemblance between these characters and real people is purely coincidental. The truly bizarre thing here is that by film’s end (assuming you get there), there’s an inexplicably moving quality to it all.

There’s nothing worthwhile about Willie, and nothing likable about the Kid. They’re both mostly pathetic — just in different ways. And yet it finally becomes impossible not to care about them. In that, Zwigoff has managed a very peculiar kind of accomplishment — almost a perverse artistry. But the film overall is best summed up by Marcus’ assessment of Willie himself: “There’s not one thing about you that isn’t f***ing ugly.”

Bad Santa is one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen — and not one I’d recommend to anyone who’s capable of being offended.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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2 thoughts on “Bad Santa

  1. Steve

    Hi Ken.

    Well I caught this movie on cable yesterday. I wanted to see it, because all my friends loved it. Frankly though, I didn’t expect to like it and wasn’t going to spend any money on it. The mystic allure of Billy Bob Thornton continued to elude me.

    After seeing this movie, I think I have a better understanding of what Angelina Jolie saw in him. To be able to portray a character as completely reprehensible as Willie, and still make you care about him, is an accomplishment that hints (to me) at seemingly shallow waters that run deep. I think now that there was probably more going on there than just slumming.

    I did like it. It was kind of an “Absolutely Fabulous” for straight people, but less slapstick and more poignant. I think the expectation of knee-slapping comedy was wrong, personally. To me this was more social satire than traditional comedy. The humor was more wry and ironic. It reminded me of a Whoopie Goldberg routine in that aspect (her original stand-up stuff)- humor with a bitter edge, that surprises you when you find that you care about the character.

    I suspect that there are things to be discovered here in repeat viewings. This one may also be funnier the second time. I’m going to rent the uncut copy and watch it again.

    Isn’t the test of a) making you care about the characters and b) making you want to see it again two of the main things that determine a good movie? Should social satire induce actual laughter to be considered funny? Many people found Neighbors to be a masterpiece of satire, but I don’t remember being half as entertained, or caring one iota about the characters, although I understand that’s a subjective perspective.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Steve, it’s been over five years since I saw Bad Santa, so I’m hardly in a position to debate its merits or lack of same. I will say that I’d never compare this to Whoopi Goldberg of the (presumably) Fontaine: Why Am I Straight? era. That material both angered me and made me laugh. Bad Santa merely depressed me. And, yes, I think satire should induce laughter if it’s to be considered funny. I don’t recall that I cared about the characters, but the movie definitely did not make me want to see it again. Neither did Neighbors for that matter.

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