What's the big deal?
Bad Santa is a festive comedy film released in 2003 directed by Terry Zwigoff and marks the last filmed appearance by John Ritter who died two months before the film's release. It stars Billy Bob Thornton as an alcoholic department store Santa who, with his diminutive sidekick dressed as an elf, commits robberies before having a change of heart after meeting a child who believes he is the real Santa. The film also stars Tony Cox, Bernie Mac, Brett Kelly, Lauren Graham and the aforementioned Ritter. Critics were largely impressed by the film and its unusual approach to Christmas, citing its difference from many other films based around the holidays. After the film proved a financial success with global earnings of $76.5 million, a sequel Bad Santa 2 was released in 2016 with most of the main cast reprising their roles.
What's it about?
Willie Soke works with his dwarf partner-in-crime Marcus Skidmore to pull off audacious heists over the festive period. Willie works as a department store Santa together with Marcus as his elf before robbing the stores where they work and making off with their ill-gotten gains. However, Willie has become an alcoholic and sex-obsessed shadow of his former self and his increasingly erratic behaviour draws the suspicions of mall manager Bob Chipeska and security chief Gin Slagel.
While Marcus and Willie bicker about Willie's drinking, Willie meets a couple of people who might just offer him a different perspective of things. After picking up Santa fetishist Sue in a bar and beginning a torrid relationship, Willie meets the overweight and naïve Thurman Merman who believes that Willie is the actual Santa Claus. Despite the drinking, blunt attitude and swearing, Willie can't seem to shake the kid and finds himself wanting to help Thurman deal with the plethora of bullies he suffers from at school...
Billy Bob Thornton
Willie T. Soke
Glenn Ficarra & John Requa
Release Date (UK)
5th November, 2004
Comedy, Crime, Festive
What's to like?
There's no denying that at the very least, Bad Santa brings something very different to the table when it comes to Christmas movies. Of course, we've seen plenty of redemption tales but few characters travel as far as Thornton's Soke, a dispiriting alcoholic waste of human life. Granted, the film doesn't see him completely change his ways but it turns him from a deeply unlikeable individual to a tragic one. The scene where he stuffs his face with every chocolate from Thurman's advent calendar is truly heart-breaking but underlines what a thoroughly ugly soul Soke is. Even the more clear-headed criminal Marcus seems more fun to be with.
The film might be hampered by essentially being a one-joke picture but the cast work hard to make it work, none more so than Cox whose foul-mouthed accomplice gives the actor a role far meatier and deeper than the bit-parts he is usually cast in, undeservedly so in my opinion. Mac and Ritter also provide decent support but Kelly's role as the terminal sad-sack Thurman is the one that stays with you. Under a flock of golden blonde curls, Thurman is the amalgamation of every schoolyard target you've ever heard of (or possibly been) and your heart breaks with every misfortune and incident he blunders through, always with a smile on his face.
- The film nearly had two very different actors in the lead role. Bill Murray had signed on but dropped out to appear in Lost In Translation. Jack Nicholson was also extremely interested but was already signed on to Something's Gotta Give.
- The film sets a record for the most profanity in a Christmas movie with around 300 swearwords used. The 'f word' and its numerous variations are used 159 times, more so in the unrated version of the film.
- Bad Santa represents the most mainstream film Zwigoff has made although Harvey & Bob Weinstein would oversee the filming of additional sequences without Zwigoff's approval to further the film's appeal. There were also creative differences between Zwigoff and executive producers Joel & Ethan Coen.
What's not to like?
My biggest problem with Bad Santa is that the film has very few likeable characters. Willie and Marcus, amusing banter aside, are professional criminals with seemingly little regard for the psychological damage caused to children by a boozy, swearing Santa smelling of cigarette smoke and cheap bourbon. Sue, as the only notable female cast member, seems too fantastical to be believable while the film's only real good guys, Gin and Bob, have far too little screen time. Thurman, meanwhile, is simply too sympathetic a character to root for because we all know he'll come good in the end. This is a Christmas film, after all.
What worries me more is that despite the atypical atmosphere for a festive film, Bad Santa feels like many more Christmas flicks than it might want you to realise. Ever since Seymour Hicks made the jump from stage to screen for 1913's Scrooge, Christmas movies have always had a redemption angle whereby a previously curmudgeonly anti-hero learns the error of their ways through the magic of the season. That's the very heart of this movie which mirrors those countless adaptations of A Christmas Carol, minus the bit about ghosts obviously. The obvious parallel in Hollywood is Frank Capra's iconic It's A Wonderful Life which also has redemption at the heart of the story but is actually not really about Christmas at all. Why this dearth of imagination and originality exists around Christmas movies is beyond me but you can argue that this film is no different to others. Worse still, it's not even that memorable a comedy with situations replacing any jokes or wit.
Should I watch it?
Bad Santa is the undoubted antidote to dozens of syrupy Christmas flicks featuring bland people falling in love or a talking dog taking children on an adventure. This is crude, rude and moderately enjoyable but gets tiresome quickly once the novelty wears off. Thornton is clearly having fun being bad in front of kids but if this is a Christmas film not designed for kids then who exactly is it for?
Great For: proper Scrooges, childless couples, cheap laughs
Not So Great For: forging its own path, alcoholics, department store Santas, families
What else should I watch?
Given that Christmas is a time for coming together, it should considered that a Christmas movie must be suitable for all viewers and not just writers and directors laughing at their own jokes. Home Alone is a great example, a festive comedy which not only has Macaulay Culkin outwitting the bumbling Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern but also a message about the importance of family and the ties that bind. Plus if you don't enjoy the final act then frankly, you've got bigger problems than what to watch this Christmas.
While I won't hear a bad word against It's A Wonderful Life, it's not exactly an easy film to watch despite the life-affirming finale. Some people prefer their festive films to be colourful and camp outings like Santa Claus: The Movie which has developed a cult following despite being a mishmash of Christmas myth and Dudley Moore's wise-cracking elf. However, for a truly disastrous festive film, I'd advise you to steer well clear of Santa With Muscles which is as bad an experience as getting your tongue stuck to an icy metal pole. Featuring racist wrestler Hulk Hogan and a very young Mila Kunis, the film is about a muscle-bound millionaire getting amnesia and thinking he's the real Santa while battling Ed Begley Jr and his gang of inept henchmen. It's widely considered one of the worst films - festive or otherwise - of all time.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox