"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bad Santa

Tired of all the sappy Christmas movies that play endlessly on the ABC Family and Lifetime channels around the holiday season? Feeling jaded and cynical about the yuletide spirit? If so, then Bad Santa (2003) is probably for you. Like The Ref (1994) before it, Bad Santa is an anti-Christmas movie. They both gleefully thumb their cynical noses at the fake cheer and manufactured mirth of the holiday season. However, where The Ref betrayed its own misanthropic tendencies with a tacked-on feel-good conclusion, Bad Santa does not make the same mistake. As a result, it had a modest run at the box office and garnered decent reviews before going to DVD. Fans now have three options: the theatrical version, a raunchier, longer unrated version, and the preferred, Director’s Cut.

Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) is a department store Santa who hasn’t hit rock bottom – he lives there. When he’s not puking in alleyways or passing out on and off the job, Willie and his partner (and head elf), Marcus (Tony Cox), break into the safes of the stores they work at and then split with the spoils. However, this successful scam hits a snag when they arrive in Phoenix, Arizona and Willie’s vulgar behavior alarms the skittish department store manager Bob Chipeska (John Ritter) and shrewd head of security Gin (Bernie Mac). Willie’s life undergoes even more changes when he hooks up with a friendly bartender named Sue (Lauren Graham) with a Santa fetish and a little kid (Brett Kelly) who really believes that Willie is Santa Claus.

Bad Santa wastes no time establishing its cynical worldview with Willie’s jaded opening voiceover that is hilarious in a darkly humorous way. The Director’s Cut removes the voiceover and so we aren’t manipulated as much on how to feel or what to think. It’s rare that a comedy revolves around such an unlikable central character. Willie is no Scrooge — he’s gone way beyond that into a whole new and surreal realm. Willie doesn’t care about anyone or anything. He pees his pants while on the job (because he’s just too hungover to move), he drinks constantly and he’s indifferent or downright mean to children — both on and off duty.

Billy Bob Thornton is something of a revelation in this role. He is constantly dirty and disheveled without a trace of vanity (he admitted to being drunk while making this film). It quickly becomes obvious that the actor committed completely to putting this disgusting character on screen. And yet, there is a charming quality to Thornton that doesn’t make you hate Willie completely. In fact, most of the time you are laughing out loud at his crazy antics or the things that he says to others. The film works so well because Thornton really makes the material work and makes you believe in his character. I’m not a huge fan of the man’s work but he’s really good in Bad Santa.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded by excellent supporting cast that features Tony Cox (Me, Myself and Irene) as Willie’s long-suffering partner and Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) as the bartender with a heart of gold. There is also John Ritter (in his last live-action role) as the perpetually nervous and anal-retentive manager, and the always-reliable Bernie Mac as the no-nonsense department store detective. They all play well off each other and are given moments to showcase their talents.

Also of note is Brett Kelly who plays Thurman Merman, the little kid that befriends Willie — whether he wants him to or not. Kelly is excellent as a stocky rich kid who’s ostracized by other kids his age because of his weight. He is also left alone at home with his barely there grandmother. Kelly has really good comic timing as demonstrated by the funny scenes with Thornton where he pesters him with a constant stream of questions about Santa and the North Pole. Thurman seems oblivious to Willie’s nasty responses and immune to his vulgar mean-spiritedness. Eventually, this behavior wears down Willie to the degree that he not only tolerates Thurman’s presence but actually finds himself caring about something.

If you decide to rent or watch Bad Santa, I would recommend the Director’s Cut which also features an audio commentary by director Terry Zwigoff and editor Robert Hoffman. The filmmaker claims that he never thought he’d live to see this cut be released. He also candidly slams the cluelessness of test audiences that resulted in his original version being altered. For the pivotal role of Thurman Merman, the studio wanted to cast a good-looking child but Zwigoff was adamant about picking a child that looked more real, like the ones in the original The Little Rascals. In one of many amusing asides, Zwigoff admits to never having seen Lauren Graham in her popular television show The Gilmore Girls. This is a refreshingly candid track as the two men talk about their difficulties with the screenplay at great length.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “But I didn't like this movie merely because it was weird and different; I liked it because it makes no compromises and takes no prisoners. And because it is funny.” In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Manohla Dargis said that Bad Santa was “a Christmas movie that Lenny Bruce could love.” In his review for the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, “Mr. Thornton is an ace at playing cantankerous, mouthy jerks in love with the sound of their own voices, men who lack the restraint or sense of shame to keep their dissatisfaction to themselves.” In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, “Thornton has a dozen ways to hit bottom, none of which ask for the slightest audience sympathy. (Perhaps only Mickey Rourke of Barfly could have given a comparable interpretation.)”

Bad Santa is unrepentant in its own politically incorrectness and never betrays its original, crass, jaded worldview with a cop-out happy ending. The Director’s Cut certainly reinforces this and is 11 minutes shorter than the Unrated version with at least seven scenes now missing in action. The results are a mixed bag. While some scenes that were cut out of this version should have been left in, the film does feel tighter now trimmed of any excess fat. There is still a hint of redemption for Willie but on his own terms. It is truly amazing in this day and age that a film backed by a Hollywood studio would have the balls to bite the hand that fed it by making an uncompromisingly uncommercial effort like Bad Santa.

For more on the Director's Cut, check out an interview with Zwigoff, here.


  1. Many years I love Christmas. I can really get into the holiday spirit. There are other years that I can't wait for it all to be over. I enjoy Christmas movies. It's nice to feel good at times. There's also a time for films like this. I loved it! Great write-up on it. Have a great holiday week. Cheers!

  2. Excellent review. Thornton really is a loveable rogue in this one. The kind of Santa I'd love to be, in fact.

    Hope you have a really great Xmas.

  3. J.D., I have linked up to your post on Chet Baker in my year-end round-up. You can check it out here (lots of great links to chew on):


  4. Keith:

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I hope you had a great Christmas and restful holidays.

    Steve Langton:

    Thanks for the kind words. I'm not a huge fan of Thornton but he's note-perfect in this film.


    Thanks for linking my LET'S GET LOST article to your year-end round-up. Many thanks!

  5. I'm catching up on your posts here. Sorry I didn't comment sooner. Great write-up on a really funny and special film. Smart, vicious, original and hysterical work that should have garnered Thornton an Oscar nom.

  6. Hey Jeremy. Thanks for the kind words. I agree with your sentiments and in a perfect world, Thornton woulda racked up some awards. Ah, well...