Ah the holiday season is upon us once again. Tis a time of goodwill towards men and being with the ones you love. And, for moviegoers, December brings us the movies that the Oscar voters will be looking the closest at. You know, the serious, dramatic, heart-gripping fare that Oscar can't get enough of. (See: Cold Mountain, The Last Samurai, Return of the King). But it's not December yet, folks, and Bad Santa gives us enough laughs to last us through the New Year (maybe even until the Oscars in February) and it knows how to pull at your heartstrings as well, in this movie that entertains on all levels.
First off, using the word "bad" to describe this Santa, Willie (Thornton) is an overwhelming understatement. He's the kind of man that mothers would shield their kids' eyes from if he walked past them, even if he had on his Santa suit or not. He smokes (a lot), he drinks (even more), he swears at the kids, pisses in his Santa suit and tells them stories about how loving unkempt women made his real beard fall off. He is probably one of the most despicable movie characters in recent memory. This behavior won't be winning this Santa any Good Housekeeping awards anytime soon, mainly because he has no plans to change his ways. But all this bad behavior by Willie isn't even the worst of it. He gets these Santa gig's with his friend Marcus (Cox), a "small" person who plays an elf, and they play their roles up untill Christmas Eve, when they rob the store blind and take off, only to meet again 11 months later in a different city, with different names, which they've been doing for 7 years. But it all changes for Willie when he gets to Phoenix and meets The Kid (Kelly), a tubby shy kid who befriends the bad Santa, no matter how badly Santa treats him.
This movie feels like a blend of Leaving Las Vegas, a heist movie and A Christmas Story. Sounds odd, doesn't it? Well, it is very very odd, but it works in almost every way. Just substitute Billy Bob Thornton's alcoholic, hates-himself Santa for Nicolas Cage's alcoholic, hates-himself screenwriter, Brett Kelly for Tiny Tim, throw in some cool heist scenes a la The Score or The Italian Job or even Heist, add the dark humor of the Coen brothers, who received a story credit on the script and served as executive producers and the equally dark Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World) at the helm, jumble it all together and voila! You have yourself a pitch-black, very original dark comedy. From seeing the trailers and TV spots, I thought this would be insanely funny, which it is, but it would have this simple plot about a Santa on the naughty list who is shown the light of the Christmas spirit by a dopey kid that he feels sorry for. Sure, that is a big part of the movie, but I was pleasantly surprised that the plot was much deeper than it appeared to be.
The main thing I didn't like about this movie was the obligatory "love interest," Sue, although Lauren Graham portrays her fairly well. I just think they didn't really need that element of the plot, even though it isn't really a big element. In going with the Leaving Las Vegas tie-in, I suppose Graham's Sue could be substituted for Elizabeth Shue's Sera, even though Sue isn't a prostitute. But even with this connection, her character really isn't needed as much as they show it.
The acting here is wonderful all throughout the immensely talented cast. Thornton shines in probably his best performance since 2001's The Man Who Wasn't There. He jumps all across the emotional spectrum, portraying each and every one of them as genuine as any actor could. I know that the movie Casino has the record for the movie that uses the "f-word" the most times, but Thornton could've easily set the record for an individual actor here, because I can't remember the last time I heard a character drop the F-Bomb in a movie as much as Thornton does in this movie. And it's incredibly funny each time he goes off on one of these rants. Some might think that it's overkill, and that Thornton is going too far, but I think it was perfect for his character and it makes you appreciate the ending more.
Thornton has by far the best performance, but everyone else turns in great performances as well. Tony Cox, who's best-known role is the nunchuck-swinging limo driver from Me Myself and Irene, is great as Marcus, Willie's partner who constantly has to keep Willie out of trouble enough so they can complete their job. Bernie Mac is wonderful as Gin, the head of security at the mall, Brett Kelly absolutely shines as The Kid, who's performance is simply touching in some parts, and John Ritter, in his farewell performance, gives us a great finale as Bob, the overworried boss of the mall. The only performance I didn't like was Lauren Tom's performance as Lois, Marcus' girlfriend who is just annoying most of the time.
The script, written by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, is just wonderful. There is a great story arc, wonderful twists and turns and an amazing ending that throws you for a huge loop, but works itself out nicely in the very end. I really liked how they opened the movie - in a bar with a bunch of happy, affluent people and a drunk, miserable Santa by himself at the end of the bar - and how it subtly showed how much of an outcast he really is. It's just a wonderful story that keeps surprising and sometimes shocking you, while still being very entertaining.
Director Terry Zwigoff has reportedly always refused to "sell out" to Hollywood commercialism, which was apparent when he turned down several big Hollywood offers and instead toiled away at making the indie hit Ghost World. You could almost say he "sold out" with Bad Santa, because it opened in more than 2,000 theaters (Ghost World reached 128 theaters at its pinacle) and it has big-name stars and was released by a big-name distributor. But the beauty of it is, this movie has a Hollywood skin but an indie heart. Zwigoff knew this movie could be easily marketed as a straight-up comedy, which it was, but then he throws all these other elements at us and we're completely and pleasantly surprised.
Bad Santa is ultimately a movie about redemption, and just how little it takes to redeem yourself from a life full or misery. It's funny and sad, dark and light, touching and violent, suspenseful and dramatic, and it's one of the best all-around entertaining movie's I've seen all year. But this is one Christmas movie that you might need a babysitter for, because it's NOT for the entire family. But if it's good adult fun you're looking for, Bad Santa has a sleighful of entertainment, and then some.