Bad Santa is a very naughty, not-for-kids, black comedy. It seems well-intentioned — it tries to give an outlet to those who hate Christmas and resent having their noses rubbed in it.
But in order for this comedy to work, it needs to drown in its own cynicism, with a sneering resentment of all holiday cheer. It does — in fact it goes too far — but the movie works against itself by including a message of redemption and an “upbeat” ending. These bright spots only illuminate how black and ugly the rest of the film truly is.
Santa and The Elves
R for language, sex, drugs, violence
Billy Bob Thornton is Willie, a mall Santa who works one month out of the year. Marcus (Tony Cox) is the “elf” who takes him under his wing. Every year, on Christmas eve, Willie and Marcus rob the store they’ve been working in and live off the money until next December.
Willie is barely able to keep sober enough to do his job, which he hates more than the bone chip in his ankle or getting punched in the eye socket. There are laughs to be had here, particularly with Thornton throwing himself gleefully into the role. He vomits in an alley behind a bar, pisses himself in a drunken stupor, and gets attacked by a crazed, homophobic would-be rapist. It’s crass, and not for all tastes, but within the realm of “funny.”
The secondary characters also show promise. In his last role, John Ritter plays a timid department-store manager unable to bring himself to even utter what he catches Willie doing, much less fire him for it. He seeks help from the store’s chief of security, played by Bernie Mac, who commands laughs just by glaring at Ritter and peeling an orange.
And what Christmas movie would be complete without children? Brett Kelly makes a strong impression as “The Kid,” the chubby, curly-headed, snot-encrusted nightmare of every mall Santa who ever lived. Behind the snot, we actually get to know The Kid, a complex, resilient shy boy with some interesting problems to work out.
But Bad Santa makes a crucial mistake. By pushing the boundaries of taste and decorum, it declares itself a bleak black comedy. (It really crosses the line when cold-blooded murder is committed. That’s when the movie lost my recommendation.)
But then it turns 180 degrees with a story of redemption, a goofy chase scene, and a “happy” voiceover ending. Did the studio insist on a more upbeat ending? Did the MPAA threaten director Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World and Crumb) with an NC-17?
Whatever caused the change at the end, it ruined the movie (that is, if you weren’t already turned off). Imagine telling off-color jokes with your old frat buddies in front of the football game. In that safe context, tasteless and offensive jokes can be damn funny. Crotch-punching, body fluids and sexual fetishes? Hilarious.
Now imagine noticing that your six-year old daughter has been listening in. Suddenly the jokes don’t seem very funny, you’re ashamed at having taken part, and you may even deny you ever thought they were funny in the first place. That’s what happens to Bad Santa. Even if you were reveling in the black comedy, the bright light of a family-friendly movie ending shows you just how crass what you’ve been watching is.
There is undoubtedly an audience for cynical movies about the Christmas season. Sometimes the force-fed joy and cheer of the season can gag a maggot. Bad Santa almost works as an antidote, but then it becomes toxic.
Do not swallow. Keep out of reach of children.