December 4, 2003

Bad Santa

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There’s a scene early in Bad Santa when Billy Bob Thornton’s character Willie is in his Santa costume and begins humping a pinball machine while taking a few swigs of alcohol. “It’s like this,” he demonstrates for a cute girl, as he rams the front and gets his game going. Shortly thereafter he places the petite blonde in between himself and the machine and, well, continues thrusting. If you don’t find this funny, the rest of Bad Santa will fall down a similar if not worse alley of immaturity, leaving you in disgust and craving less crude holiday humor (i.e. Elf). This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but if you can stomach alcohol, coarse language (come on, we’re in college) and a different kind of holiday spirit, Bad Santa will surpass your expectations.

Early into the credits, I saw Joel & Ethan Coen listed as the executive producers. Though they didn’t direct it, their names were enough for me to think of the brothers’ Big Lebowski and Fargo style. Bad Santa is basically a Coen Brothers’ Christmas comedy. The opening monologue is reminiscent of the Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, since Billy Bob starred in and narrated both. This introduction is simply hilarious. Before Thornton’s Willie ever talks on camera, we see him drinking a copious amount of hard alcohol and narrating a story of his past so vulgar that you’d think you were seeing a sequel to Sling Blade. The drinking and swearing do not stop once throughout this movie. No bullshit, all problems.

I was nervously waiting for that sappy moment where humor disappears and the movie begins to appease yuppy parents and kids too young to be in the theater. You know, the type of ending that kept Elf from being awesome. That never happened, thank god. The humor was consistently right on its offensive target. Any movie where Bernie Mac is the least comedic element has a good thing going. The plot is stupid on paper, like any other comedy, but it is delivered well. To summarize, Willie moves in with an abandoned rich kid and meets a lady bartender, Sue, with a fetish for Santa Claus. She’ll be on his naughty list this year.

Billy Bob and Tony Cox couldn’t have found better roles. Cox, the memorable black dwarf from Me Myself & Irene, is Willie’s elf partner in crime, Marcus. The only thing that matches Willie’s vulgarity is Marcus’s dirty mouth. I don’t recall either of them smiling the entire movie, and Marcus uses Willie, who’s twice his size, as a verbal punching bag. The casting made this movie a success, similar to Jack Black making School of Rock work. Thornton’s ugly, scrubby, how-the-hell-did-he-bag-Angelina Jolie appearance couldn’t be shaped better than in the form of an alcoholic Santa. The storytelling resembled Matchstick Men in style: we’re aggressively shot-gunned into such a pathetic guy’s life. The up-close view of the dismal life that Willie or Men’s Roy both have convinces us that their benevolent motives will be short-lived. This manipulation makes the tale successfully offbeat and original in delivery.

Besides Cox, the recently passed John Ritter and, yes, Samir from Office Space both make guest appearances. Bad Santa moves quickly, never relying on one type of joke or one scenario. It isn’t much more than 90 minutes, if that, but it accomplishes everything that it wished to. I will never look at Santas in the mall the same way. This gives any movie-making team out there with an uphill plot concrete evidence that miracles can happen. Merry fucking Christmas.

Archived article by Dan Cohen