Bad Santa is to Christmas what Bad Lieutenant was to cops. I’ll go out on a limb and rank it right up there with Scrooged (only less stylish, and without the incomparable Bill Murray, who was once considered for this movie) in the admittedly small subgenre of anti-holiday comedies. The film’s success (or failure) really begins and ends with Billy Bob Thornton, and if you don’t get tired of watching him sitting in a grubby Santa suit and growling “What the fuck do you want?” to the latest kid unlucky enough to park on his piss-stained lap (it never got old for me), this is your movie this season. Merry Christmas.
Thornton is Willie T. Stokes, a drunken, foulmouthed loser who wearily dons the Santa suit each December for whatever shopping mall is desperate enough to hire him. His partner, the diminutive Marcus (Tony Cox), is a black elf with white pointy ears. Willie and Marcus have a lucrative scam: along with Marcus’ greedy wife Lois (Lauren Tom), they break into their mall employer’s safe after hours, make off with thousands of dollars, and head south until it’s time to do it all over again.
This year, however, throws Willie a chubby curveball, in the form of a neglected, pathetic kid (Brett Kelly, likable without being cutesy) who adopts Willie as a kind of surrogate Santa Dad. Willie will have none of this, even when he’s forced to move in with the kid and his decrepit grandma (Cloris Leachman). Yet some shred of decency begins to dawn in Willie’s booze-soaked heart. Without losing his disreputable, ornery edge — he’s still a drunk and a thief — Thornton enacts a slow, grudging turnaround that’s believable precisely because Willie is such an asshole. The movie is less about gaining the Christmas spirit than about defying the corporate ethos (personified by the mall’s mealy-mouthed manager, smoothly played by John Ritter in his final screen appearance) that hijacks and then abandons that spirit every year.
This is likely the closest that director Terry Zwigoff (of the brilliant documentary Crumb and 2001’s quirky comedy-drama Ghost World) will ever come to a mainstream movie: Bad Santa opened on 2,005 screens, for Christ’s sake. Yet, like Thornton, Zwigoff doesn’t sell out. Peppering the soundtrack with liberal satirical appropriation of dusty classical Christmas music, Zwigoff crafts the sort of vulgar, deadpan-funny fable even Robert Crumb might chuckle at. His taste in supporting actors remains first-rate: Bernie Mac appears as the mall’s corrupt head of security (who has a unique approach to reprimanding a shoplifting kid); Lauren Graham, in a far cry from her rather more innocent role on Gilmore Girls, scores as a bartender with (to Willie’s bemused surprise) a Santa fetish; Ajay Naidu (Office Space) and Matt Walsh (Upright Citizens Brigade) turn up for quick, memorable bits.
But it all comes back to Billy Bob, who owns this movie the way Murray owned Scrooged — an unrepentant shitheel who finds himself, by the end, risking death to deliver a pink stuffed elephant to the kid. Though not officially credited, Joel and Ethan Coen reportedly devised the film’s original story (their names are on the movie as executive producers), and I bet they got the idea while directing Thornton as the stoic, humorless barber in The Man Who Wasn’t There. I have a mental image of them on the set, putting a Santa hat on a sour-faced Billy Bob and laughing as they realized there could be a movie in that.