Put simply, Bad Santa is as crass and cringey as anything Hollywood has ever produced. At its core is Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), a department store Santa who radiates boozy rage like stench from a rotten egg. Even the flies that buzz around his head are probably drunk. It was an enormous gamble for the filmmakers to build around such a repugnant, hate-fueled individual, especially in a Christmas movie. Nothing about any of this should work.
Oh, but work it does. Much of that is due to Thornton, who goes all in on Willie’s unabashed ugliness. His dreary, bleary-eyed narration recalls Martin Sheen churning up the Mekong in Apocalypse Now. Except where Captain Willard tangled with Vietcong and jungle tigers, Willie suffers through snot-nosed brats who might piss all over him–that is, if Willie doesn’t beat them to it. His cynicism is so pure and perfectly formed, it’s almost impossible not to laugh at a mangy, foul-mouthed Santa Claus, barfing up sour mash in an alleyway. In fact, that image defines much of Bad Santa: Many scenes are a shock to our senses, and all we can do is laugh.
Of course, this movie isn’t just Santa’s journey into hell. No, Bad Santa throws in a novel twist: Willie is a safecracking thief. The St. Nick thing is just a front, so that Willie can maraud and pillage shopping malls far and wide His primary accomplice is Marcus (Tony Cox), a dwarf who acts as Santa’s elf and sober conscience. When their chosen mall closes for night, Willie loots petty cash while Marcus barrels through the shops like an episode of Supermarket Sweep. Lois (Lauren Tom), Marcus’s girlfriend, is in charge of the getaway van. Every year, the gang finds a new spot and repeats their scheme.
On this track, Willie would eventually be in prison, or dead. But this is a Christmas movie, which means that some form of spiritual salvation has to come, however meager that might be. For Willie, hope takes the form of Thurman (Brett Kelly), an overweight little boy who’s so guileless he makes Forrest Gump seem like Noël Coward. Convinced that Willie is the Santa Claus, Thurman attaches himself with such sweet-natured abandon, not even this overserved Kris Kringle could resist him.
At this point, most movies would become maudlin, with Willie undergoing a Scrooge-style transformation. Thankfully, Bad Santa ain’t most movies. Director Terry Zwigoff makes sure that Willie’s eventual glimmers of decency feel earned, and takes the long way to get there. Naturally, Thurman lives in a sprawling mansion with his senile granny (Cloris Leachman), so Willie plots to rob the place blind. Thurman’s dad is off “exploring mountains” (white collar prison), which means Willie helps himself to the guy’s BMW 7-series. It’s a difficult proposition to bring such an ugly soul back into the light, but the filmmakers pull it off with deceptive finesse.
Santa also benefits from a few sturdy supporting players. The irreplaceable John Ritter plays the dweeby, high-strung GM of the mall Willie and Marcus are casing, and his performance is a master class in scene-stealing. It’s a small role, but Ritter wrings the last drop of comedy from every syllable, every wince. He passed away while this film was in post-production, and his work here is a testament to how much he’ll be missed. Meanwhile, Bernie Mac (also gone too soon) gets a few good scenes as the savvy, morally bankrupt mall detective. Lauren Graham brings a sweetness to her character, although it’s unbelievable that anyone could become so quickly devoted to a noxious tragedy like Willie.
Bad Santa presents a problem I’ve run into before. How do I rate it? I enjoyed it, a lot. At the same time, I remember several people storming out of the theater. (I believe it was during the scene where Willie confides to Marcus. “I beat the shit out of some kids today. Made me feel good about myself.”) This is different than any Christmas movie you’ve ever seen. It demands your mind go straight to the gutter and enjoy the time spent there. If you can do that, pencil this movie in as an R-rated holiday staple. If not, consider this your one and only warning.
92 min. R. Paramount+.