If the title and the film’s R rating aren’t enough to clue you in, let me drive it home for you. Bad Santa is not in any way, shape or form a movie for kids. It’s foul-mouthed, nasty and dark. And it’s about time that there’s a smart holiday comedy strictly for adults.
Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie, an alcoholic safecracker who, along with his dwarf partner Marcus (Tony Cox), masquerade as a department store Santa and Elf as a way to case the store’s security to rob the place on Christmas Eve. While Willie is an excellent safecracker, remaining undercover as Santa is a strain as he hates kids and his own self-loathing causes him to drink excessively. Their most recent set up at a Phoenix mall is threatened by a suspicious though timid store manager (John Ritter) and a store security manager (Bernie Mac) who likes to play all the angles. In addition, an overweight, sad sack of a kid has seemed to attach himself to Willie, despite his best attempts to chase him away. The only comfort Willie has found is in his relationship with a sexy bartender (Lauren Graham) who has a Santa fetish.
Bad Santa is a move that is almost aggressively crude and vulgar. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it makes for a very funny, dark film. Director Terry Zwigoff (2001’s Ghostworld) takes rather tricky material and manages it well, keeping it funny without ever being excessive. Sure, even the most neglectful parent wouldn’t dream of allowing their children near an obviously intoxicated, only-half-in-his-costume mall Santa. Yet somehow Zwigoff manages to bring a verisimilitude to these absurd situations which reinforce the laughs.
Others would have the story of Willie and his relationship with the Kid to form an emotional core for the film. Thankfully Zwigoff avoids this. Even when the film tries to steer towards a heartwarming finale, Zwigoff keeps things skewed enough to keep the sap from running.
Billy Bob Thornton’s performance is incredible, rivaling that of his work in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2000) and Slingblade (1996). Thornton totally inhabits the role of the alcoholic Willie so completely that it would be hard to imagine anyone else filling the stained and disheveled Santa coat. Thornton resists the temptation to play a cartoon drunk and invests Willie with the characterization to make his present alcoholic condition believable and yet manages to keep it funny.
Some people are not going to like this film. That’s fine. No one’s forcing them to go see it. But if you happen to enjoy dark comedy is just the holiday treat you’ll want after a long day’s insanity of Christmas shopping at the mall.