Bad Santa

“Wish in one hand, shit in the other. See which one fills up first.” —Billy Bob Thornton, Bad Santa

Director Terry Zwigoff was responsible for the best—maybe only good—fart joke I’ve ever seen in a movie. In the middle of Ghost World, his excellent 2001 adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ comic, an irascible, middle-aged vinyl collector (Steve Buscemi) is sulking about his confusing relationship with a high-school graduate half his age. He retreats to the one room in his fleabag apartment where he feels at home, a sanctuary filled with old records and vintage pop art that cocoons him from the banality and disappointment of the outside world. In walks his roommate, also middle-aged and slovenly, to offer counsel while drinking from an open carton of milk. At the end of a sentence, he simply lets one fly, like a punctuation mark. It’s a funny moment partly because it’s so matter-of-fact, where other fart jokes are disgustingly emphatic. It’s also funny because it underlines Buscemi’s pathetic situation, pining for a teenager who won’t return his calls while sharing space with a man who slouches around in sweatpants and dirty T-shirts, with no regard for social politesse. 

Point being, Zwigoff is the rare filmmaker who knows how to do smart lowbrow. Respected directors aren’t supposed to do fart jokes, and they’re also not supposed to touch material as vile and misanthropic as 2002’s Bad Santa, the ultimate in holiday counter-programming. But Zwigoff, who emerged on the scene with the great documentary Crumb, has a Crumb-like contempt for fancy-pants elitism even as he operates outside of the mainstream, so he’s a stranger to both worlds. At the same time, his films have to appeal to someone, especially a genuine studio comedy like Bad Santa, so he has to straddle those worlds as well, which here means a tone that pushes the boundaries of good taste while holding just a little back. Zwigoff’s sour, inebriated mall Santa is bad, but in his perverse way, he has as much universal appeal as jolly old St. Nick: Unless you have a superhuman tolerance for the hassles of the holiday season, there’s a downside to the most wonderful time of the year.

Nevertheless, Disney was deeply unhappy with Bad Santa in the months and weeks leading up to its release. Owning Miramax (and its genre-movie label Dimension, which ultimately released Bad Santa) had always given the studio some degree of plausible deniability; it could reap the benefits of adult-oriented fare like Pulp Fiction without sullying its squeaky-clean image, and claim to respect the sovereignty of Bob and Harvey Weinstein if any controversy took hold. But Santa Claus is a sacred figure, and the movies had never really questioned that before, much less turned him into an insatiable boozehound and ass-man who’s the primary source of nearly 300 profanities in 90 minutes. The contentious back-and-forth between Zwigoff and his bosses resulted in a tacked-on ending that tried to give audiences a softer landing, plus at least three different DVD cuts, including a longer “unrated” cut called Badder Santa and a “director’s cut” that’s actually three minutes shorter than the theatrical version. The movie turned out to be a hit in spite of Disney’s transparent embarrassment over it, which speaks to how strong a chord the film struck with people thirsting for holiday fun without the obligatory treacle. 

Trivia question: Did you know that before he was the moody lead singer for the wildly popular “modbilly” outfit The Boxmasters, W.R. “Bud” Thornton was an actor, director, and screenwriter named Billy Bob Thornton? And would you ask Tom Petty a question like that? In all seriousness, before his infamous blowup on Canadian radio, I only thought of Billy Bob Thornton as one of the most gifted actors out there; I’d rank his heartbreaking work as an unwilling conspirator in A Simple Plan and his minimalist turn as the barber in The Man Who Wasn’t There as two of the best performances in the last 15 years. It’s unfortunate that his offscreen behavior has sullied his reputation onscreen as well, though in re-watching Bad Santa, the irascible Boxmasters frontman and the lesser-known screen star yoke together harmoniously. Thornton is a man clearly at ease being a crank and playing a crank, and his refusal to cozy up to the audience and assure them he’s a sweetheart under all that bile is a large part of what makes the performance so effective. Other actors are too nice or too vain to be that nasty and not apologize for it.

As Bad Santa opens, expert safecracker Willie T. Stokes (Thornton) and his diminutive partner-in-crime Marcus (Tony Cox) have reached the endgame of their annual holiday scam. Willie and Marcus infiltrate a department store as Santa and his little helper, then rob the place blind when it’s flush with Christmas cash; Marcus sets up the job (using his size to his advantage) and tries to keep Willie sober enough to get through the season, which gets harder to do with each passing year. Their latest gig finds Willie worse off than ever: His first exchange with the uptight store manager (brilliantly played by John Ritter, in his final screen role) goes awry over a perceived insult about Willie’s “fuckstick,” and he can barely prop himself up enough to get through the day. When the store manager overhears Willie getting it on with a woman in the plus-sized dressing room (“You’re not gonna shit right for a week!”), it’s obviously a fireable offense. But in this scene, which expertly plays Thornton’s unfiltered crudity off Ritter’s word-parsing, ineffectual everyman, getting rid of Willie and Marcus proves difficult:

Recognizing that a character as thoroughly loathsome as Willie cannot be allowed to go unchecked, Bad Santa introduces not one but two stock characters to redeem him: The Dame and The Kid. (The latter is actually credited as “The Kid,” though we see from his C-riddled report card that his unfortunate real name is Thurman Merman.) But true to the film’s malevolent spirit, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s script (polished by the Coen brothers and Zwigoff) doesn’t play either one straight. The Dame, played by Lauren Graham, is a sexy bartender with a raging Santa fetish, and The Kid, played by Brett Kelly, is a plump, snot-nosed, dim-witted misfit who’s so pitiable that even Willie can’t bring himself to bully him for too long. The irony of both characters is they’re so enamored of Santa Claus—for two very different reasons, mind—that they’re incapable of seeing the slightly flawed man behind the dirty, gin-soaked beard. The harder Willie tries to push away, the more they dig in: The bartender, raised Jewish, is increasingly turned on by her “forbidden” fantasy as it becomes more forbidden, and The Kid stands in for all the children who will accept any crazy justification for Santa’s existence in order to keep on believing. 

At times, Zwigoff overplays his hand: Packing the soundtrack with Christmas standards like “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Let It Snow” slathers on more irony than the film needs, and the deadpan touches are more effective than the pummeling outbursts of profanity. The best moments in Bad Santa are the ones that are more than just in-your-face provocative: Willie leering at the bikini-clad women playing volleyball on the beach, not even trying to make it seem surreptitious; Willie putting in a half-assed effort to patch up The Kid’s ravaged Advent calendar by replacing a chocolate with a single piece of candy corn (“They can’t all be winners, can they?”); Marcus’ quiet advisement that Santa “probably shouldn’t be digging into [his] ass” in full view of the children and their parents. But above all, I cherish this scene, where Marcus attempts to negotiate with a security guard (Bernie Mac) who blackmails them for a piece of the action: 

For a supposed one-joke comedy—you know, Santa, being bad and all—Bad Santa has more dimensions to it than many assume or acknowledge. Yes, there’s only one way to interpret Willie blasting a mother and his little boy for interrupting his lunch break—Santa, bad—but the film taps into the broader feeling in the culture that Christmas isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Where some little boys get everything they want under the tree, for example, others, like The Kid, are stuck at home with a demented grandmother, with some surly bastard telling them that fried bologna on white bread with a dollop of salsa is a “tostada.” For The Kid, a blood-spattered pink elephant is the closest he’s going to get to a Christmas miracle. For even the luckiest among us, Bad Santa is a sweet, cathartic reminder that sometimes the season is neither holly nor jolly.

Next two weeks: Christmas and New Years, no columns
January 7: Bottle Rocket
January 14: Zero Effect
January 21: Requiem For A Dream