Bad Santa (2003) / Comedy-Crime
MPAA Rated: R for pervasive language, strong sexual content, crude humor and some violence
Running Time: 93 min.
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Bernie Mac, Lauren Graham, Lauren Tom, John Ritter, Cloris Leachman
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Screenplay: John Requa, Glenn Ficara
Review published November 28, 2003
First, let me get out of the way that I'm not giving Bad Santa a bad review because I found it morally repugnant or that I'm upset at yet another desecration of a beloved icon. It's not the fact that the film is vulgar that I dislike it so; it's the fact that it isn't much of anything else. Watching a guy in a Santa suit do and say the vilest of things may be funny to people who love anything that pushes the envelope of good taste, such as "South Park" or just about any film by the Farrelly brothers. The problem with Bad Santa is that it uses vulgarity as a crutch to inject humor where there really isn't any, gasping for precious air like a fish out of water, needing something to keep its feeble self alive, and only doing so by spewing out more of the same.
At its core, Bad Santa is a mix of heist flick and a black comedy, with Thornton (Intolerable Cruelty, Bandits) playing Willie, a man who has no interest in being a mall Santa, save for the fact that it allows himself and his diminutive elf assistant (Cox, Date Movie) some time to case the place for a safe and figure out a way to crack it before Christmas. Willie wants to get out of the shady business, but he is caught in a cycle of alcoholism and bad vices, pissing away all of his loot before the next winter, having to find another mall, another safe, and enough money to last another year. Over the years, Willie has gotten progressively more unhealthy, and sloppy in his habits, and this sloppiness carries over into their latest gig in Phoenix, where he involuntarily befriends an 8-year-old boy (Kelly, The Sandlot 2).
Bad Santa is directed by Terry Zwigoff, who has scored two acclaimed cult comedies in a row, Crumb and Ghost World, and there's probably a cult audience for this film as well, although I suspect it's a much different audience for much different reasons. It's a predictable, one-joke premise: watch Santa binge drink, spew profanity, insult children and their mothers, screw women, piss himself -- rinse and repeat. Obviously, with a young child in the mix, there's only so long the Grinch-shtick can last, and the final half hour becomes formulaic fare, although the change in heart feels like a welcome shower after an hour of the filthiest, black comedy around.
So is Bad Santa funny? I'll give you a litmus test: re-read my review above, except this time put the word "fucking" before each noun and adjective. If by adding just this one word repeatedly throughout causes you to think it's hilarious, then Bad Santa was made for you. It's simple-minded vulgarity for simple-minded audiences, and probably shoddy entertainment for anyone looking for substance. Seeing a network attempt to edit this for television would be hilarious, much more so than the film itself ends up being.
-- Also available in an 88-minute Director's Cut and an unrated 99-minute raunchier version, Badder Santa.
©2003 Vince Leo