REVIEW: Bad Santa [2003]

Score: 3/10 | ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 91 minutes | Release Date: November 26th, 2003 (USA)
Studio: Dimension Films
Director(s): Terry Zwigoff
Writer(s): Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

“Fraggle-stick car?”

I tried to put a decade behind it and me, but not even that could turn my opinion on Bad Santa around. It’s just a mean-spirited, way-too-random account of a stereotypical alcoholic populated with other characters as ruthless as him or worse. The only role with a modicum of humanity is a borderline retarded kid who asks a ton of questions through a naïvely childish view on a perpetually cruel world. There’s a problem when the film’s biggest laugh comes courtesy of this boy running down the stairs covered in blood and screaming simply because we can’t wrap our heads around what’s happening. I like nonsense, but not at the cost of story because while no amount of heart or “Christmas spirit” can save anyone involved there should at least be a point to what’s happening.

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa‘s script follows Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) and Marcus (Tony Cox), two thieves whose specialty is being hired as mall Santa and elf respectively so they can rob it on Christmas Eve, spend the cash for eleven months, and choose a new city to do it again. It’s a fun concept that defies logic since Willie is possibly the worst human being to ever walk this earth and yet managers like Bob Chipeska (John Ritter) somehow keep hiring him to interact with children all day. He’s an insurance claim nightmare whose one saving grace is Marcus’ smarts to smooth things over and do the heavy lifting of working out a plan. The little guy has to take point, though, or his materialistic wife/partner Lois (Lauren Tom) would probably eat him.

We see the three in action during a prologue to set the stage and introduce their roles before fast-forwarding to a present-day reunion in Phoenix. Everything seems to be in their favor once they see Chipeska’s bumbling buffoon without a backbone running the show, but they couldn’t have guessed a take-no-prisoners head of security like Gin (Bernie Mac) would be waiting for an excuse to leave his oranges in the surveillance room since only rent-a-cops usually block their paths. Add in the aforementioned Kid (Brett Kelly‘s name is a punchline) serving as Willie’s mark for a place to stay and you have the entire film. Willie’s Santa is a jerk, the kid’s neediness annoys him, Marcus tries to keep him in line, and Gin searches to take them out. The rest is just filler.

And here is where I simply cannot get onboard like so many others. I’m okay with hilarious filler when it’s simply plugging pacing issues of the story, but not the other way around. Bad Santa is sheer nonsense with plot points desperately trying to add connective tissue to what’s otherwise a series of comic sketches. Recognizable faces like Ajay Naidu, Alex Borstein, Billy Gardell, Tom McGowan, Cloris Leachman, and Octavia Spencer arrive to be the butt of the latest mean joke created for Willie and nothing else. The whole film is just escalating cruelty masquerading as character building so that the Kid’s “heart and soul” weirdness can slowly thaw his attitude to a couple notches below where it was at the start. I guess if there’s one silver lining, at least Willie doesn’t end up completely reformed by the end.

I’m not sure why director Terry Zwigoff decided to follow up his acclaimed, nuanced dramedy Ghost World with something so blatantly on-the-nose and boisterous, but here we are. He does well in creating the world around these horrible people as well as painting Thornton’s Willie as a pedophilic creeper constantly leaving destruction and vomit in his wake—so there is that. But successfully orchestrating a misguided and lowest common denominator script isn’t necessarily something with which to be proud when the biggest laughs come courtesy of WTF-moments whose situational insanity is funny and not the content itself. I don’t even remember what Ritter and Mac are saying to each other in one scene, but the rapid-fire reaction shots cutting to the former’s nebbish insecurity and latter’s stone-faced indifference made me smile nonetheless. Kudos?

Thornton does his job, yes, but a two-dimensional role laced with profanity shouldn’t have ever been nominated for a Golden Globe. He probably has Harvey Weinstein to thank for that one. The two actors who really deserve mention are Tony Cox and Brett Kelly for conjuring actual laughs rather than uncomfortable ones. Cox is a wealth of oneliners and fed-up attitude in a role that does evolve into something more sinister and surprising than you’d possibly guess while Kelly goes full bore into the deer-in-the-headlights, pants-on-head wonderment his snot-nosed icon calls for. They are the bad and good angels constantly whispering into Willie’s ears to earn a reaction and hopefully make whatever scene they’re in worth its screentime. They don’t always get the laugh, but they do at the very least make the trouble of watching less atrocious.

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