Directed by: Terry Zwigoff
Written by: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Lauren Graham, Brett Kelly, Lauren Tom, Bernie Mac
Even the rudest, vilest, and most hurtful people are born with a heart and sometimes it takes the power of caring for others to activate it. Human connection can have that strong of an impact. That happens to occur to a very callous man in his adventures of dressing up as Santa Claus for all the wrong reasons.
As a yearly tradition to make money for the following year, Willie (Billy Bob Thorton) works with Marcus (Tony Cox) and his wife, Lois (Lauren Tom) to work the Santa displays in malls only to rob the stores on Christmas Eve. Their operation has seen better days as Wille struggles to fight off his alcoholism and sex addiction to the dismay of his colleagues. In their latest attempt, Willie meets a kid that changes his attitude towards life.
Santas in shopping malls have always fascinated me because the kids taken to have a picture with them genuinely believe they are the real Santa Clause no matter what they look like. It never crosses a child’s mind that Santa looks different every year and in all of the coloring books, commercials, and movies. They also believe that Sants specifically chose to sit in their one mall rather than all of the other options. Not something I make fun of because I was the same as a child. Bad Santa tries to make the case that children believe someone that looks like Billy Bob Thorton under a terrible Santa beard could be believable. Despite its many faults, I ultimately had quite a bit of fun with this foul-mouthed holiday story.
The secret sauce to any of it working comes down to Billy Bob Thornton as he takes on a character that can easily be unlikable but the challenge becomes trying to make him a character that can be redeemed. Everything in the first act shows someone who hates everything around him that does not bring him pleasure. He cannot even hold down the only real job he has, which would be this operation without worrying his accomplices. He’s out of control, but the introduction of Thurman (Brett Kelly) seems to change everything for him. Thurman gets bullied by skateboarders but still loves Christmas despite all of the nonsense of his life. He lives with a grandmother who cannot care for him and a father who landed in jail due to embezzlement. He provides the pure outlook of life to contrast the cynicism of Willie. Their combination becomes the emotional focal point of the story and saves the film from becoming another throwaway trashy and raunchy comedy.
Tony Cox and Bernie Mac provide the best comedic moments in the film, as their characters have more ruthless characteristics. While Willie can barely put a sentence together when he’s constantly drunk, the maneuvering by Marcus and Gin becomes plenty of fun. Being the early 2000s, it did not surprise me that several “midget” jokes were thrown in there because when the lowest-hanging fruit hangs there, comedy writers cannot help but pluck it. Tony Cox’s Marcus takes everything so seriously, which makes for a funny contrast to Willie who takes everything in stride. It makes him a worthy adversary for someone like Gin, who runs security for the mall. Their showdowns come together for quite the electric finale. Additionally, the surprising addition of Lauren Graham as Sue, a woman with a Santa fetish, really lit up the screen with her limited time. A role I never thought Graham would take on, but she rocked it.
With all of its faults, Bad Santa provides many fun moments that makes you wonder how you could ever see this man redeeming himself. The magic all comes from Thurman and how he quickly becomes the heart and soul of the narrative and has the ability to change such a cynical and decrepit man. If Thurman can’t do it then nobody will. With all of the dirty jokes and inappropriate sexual exploits by Willie, the combination of the characters in the story make for good contrasts and something that feels the opposite of Christmas for most of the runtime. It feels like great counterprogramming to the usual Christmas fare of such pure storytelling and well-meaning characters. No one besides Thurman could care less about the meaning of Christmas and why it brings people together. They represent the economic side that knows that money can be made. Be more like Thurman.