Bad Santa is a sort of anti-holiday-season comedy that certainly lives up to its title. It has much more in common with the human skid tracks of Bad Lieutenant and Barfly and the antisocial mayhem of an Adam Sandler movie than with Elf even though it does spend much of its time in a department-store display where a counterfeit Kriss Kringle and his helper serve long lines of wishful children. Sometimes, I take notes to capture the nuances and complexity of a film. Not here. The only thing I jotted down was “drunken store Santa pukes during opening credits.” As the film moved along, too much of it was just repellent, redundant or irrelevant.
The Saint-challenged Nick here, like the careening cop in Lieutenant and woozy writer in Barfly, knows he’s bad and addicted and just doesn’t care. Willie is an alcoholic safecracker who likes to have sex with overweight ladies from the rear (leaving them unable to defecate decently for a month, we are told) and urinates on himself while wearing his bright red suit. He physically batters teen bullies, chugs bourbon like it was mythical nectar and uses the F-word even in the presence of children—quite possibly more times than Dennis Hopper says “man” in Easy Rider. Santa’s “naughty” list would not be complete without Willie’s name somewhere near the top.
The story idea is attributed to the Coen Brothers (Raising Arizona and Fargo), but the script itself by Cats & Dogs co-scribes John Requa and Glenn Ficarra smacks more of the septic-tank sensibility of the Farrelly brothers (Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary). I’m not going to be a total Scrooge here. I found some moments to be absolutely hilarious, and even some of the film’s cruder scenes had some redeeming comic value. But over all, Bad Santa feels like a dressed-up one-line joke with no place to go. This film tends to ignore that there’s a huge difference between pushing the boundaries of comedy and just splashing it with raunchiness.
Billy Bob Thornton seems right at home in the skin of the vile, degenerate Willie, who partners in crime with the 3-foot-2-inch tall Marcus (Tony Cox). Their scam is to meet in a different city each year, get a job as a store’s Santa and elf by underbidding the local talent, and then rob their place of work on Christmas Eve when the take is the fattest. Willie’s childhood with an abusive father apparently has soured his outlook on life. Each year, his excessive drinking and womanizing worry Marcus a little more. This year, Willie is totally out of control.
One youngster who visits Willie’s lap is the chubby, clueless 8-year-old loner Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly). Thurman invites Willie to stay with him and his grandma (Cloris Leachman) in their large home. Willie moves in, and his interaction with Thurman and, though not quite so much, with Marcus become the heart of the film. Willie understands Thurman’s childhood isolation but does not outwardly sympathize with it as he also crosses paths with a wimpy store manager (the late John Ritter), a mall security manager (Bernie Mac) and a barmaid with a Santa fetish (Lauren Graham). These peripheral characters in this rather moral-less tale are sorely underused, but Leachman, as the senior citizen who intermittently snaps out of near death-like naps to suddenly want to make sandwiches, and Ritter, as the skittish store boss, elicit some chuckles.
Director Terry Zwigoff (Crumb and Ghost World) clawed out a foothold in Hollywood by exploring the lives of outer-fringe people. His previous films felt effortless where Bad Santa strains and felt fresh where Bad Santa grows repetitious. His heart just doesn’t seem to be in the caper at hand, and the dark, hysterical character study that lies just below the ice of Bad Santa’s gauntlet of profanities, alcoholism and social dysfunction never breaks through. I futilely weathered the abuse much like the optimist in the chestnut Christmas joke about the boy who digs through a mound of horse manure because he knows there’s got to be a pony in there somewhere.
Sitting through Bad Santa is ultimately like opening a Christmas card from someone you have not heard from in a long time and finding only their signature below the seasonal greeting: It left me feeling cheated.