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Bad Santa
2003 - R - 93 Mins.
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Producer: Sarah Aubrey, John Cameron and Bob Weinstein
Written By: John Requa, Glenn Ficarra, Arnie Marx and Terry Zwigoff
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Lauren Graham, Lauren Tom and Bernie Mac
Review by: Bill King
   
Every year during the holidays, I enjoy watching such classics as "A Christmas Story" and the television specials "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." I might add "Bad Santa" to that list. This is a gleefully funny and vulgar movie that is about anything but holiday cheer. In what might be one of the most controversial movies of the year, director Terry Zwigoff delivers a mean-spirited but insightful movie about a drunken thief who plays Santa by day but is an unshaven alcoholic by, well, day and night.

Billy Bob Thornton is appropriately cast as Willie, a safecracker who has spent the last eight years masquerading as a mall Santa. He and his assistant, a dwarf named Marcus (Tony Cox from "Me, Myself & Irene"), steal all the money from a department store safe and split the earnings. The next year, they reunite to steal from a different store in another part of the country. Their plan has worked so far, but with each year that passes, Willie becomes more distracted by his alcoholism. With a bottle in hand, Willie struggles to keep conscious. His behavior draws too much attention, and Marcus grows impatient.

Willie sits sloppily in his chair, with eager children telling him what they want for Christmas, and getting responses like "whatever" and "okay," or maybe worse. He swears all the time, trips all over, then goes to the bar after work to drown out his sorrows. In the meantime, Marcus stakes out the store, looking for ways to circumvent the security system to allow for their steal. If it wasn't for Willie's constant drunkenness, the plan would be flawless.

The duo comes across a few obstacles. The security manager of the mall (Bernie Mac) wants a cut of the profits, or he'll report them to the manager (John Ritter, in his last film role). Willie meets a bartender, Sue (Lauren Graham), who has a weird Santa fetish. While they screw around in the spa, the car or bed, she wants him to wear his Santa hat while she yells Santa's name. Then there's Thurman (Brett Kelly), an overweight boy who meets Santa and latches onto him. He asks questions about Santa's reindeer, how they sleep, his sleigh, Mrs. Claus and other irritating inquiries that only enrage the guy.

The heart of the film is the curious relationship between Willie and Thurman. There is no predictable bonding; just the deep resentment that Willie has for the kid. He can't stand the boy, but he needs a place to stay, so he shacks up with Thurman. The kid's dad is in jail, and though his grandmother cares for him, her condition is so weak that she barely notices when he's gone. At the end of the day, Willie walks in, usually drunk, and swears up a storm before going to sleep. The boy puts up with the behavior, perhaps due to the lack of a father figure. What's particularly fascinating about their "friendship" is that it develops in unexpected ways. Willie doesn't change, at least not much, but Thurman shows signs of confidence, something that previously wasn't there.

"Bad Santa" is not the cheerful comedy that the ads make it out to be. It's funny, but this is really a movie intended for adults. The movie is relentless in its depiction of Willie's inner demons. There are many scenes highlighting how low he has sunk. He's selfish, drunk, rude and belittling. His partner-in-crime, Marcus, is equally bitter. As a pair, these guys don't get along very well, but they need each other to get their money.

What's great about "Bad Santa" is its fearless devotion to breaking down barriers. Not content with playing it safe, Terry Zwigoff bats down any traditional element of a holiday movie to come up with this twisted nightmare of a movie. Zwigoff also directed "Ghost World," another movie about lonely and isolated people. Eccentricity is a noticeable trait in his characters. Billy Bob Thornton's portrayal of Willie is like his character in "Monster's Ball," only far more deteriorated. He opens up in ways that few actors might want to, but Thornton is one who takes chances. Relative newcomer Brett Kelly is terrific as Thurman. He doesn't give a cute performance. His character is sad, almost throughout the movie, yet he finds comfort somehow in the deranged Willie. He sees something there that resembles a spark of humanity.

I expected "Bad Santa" to be another example of an actor selling out to make plodding kiddie fare. That's what Alec Baldwin did with "The Cat in the Hat," which opened around the same time as this movie. I was wrong. This is one of 2003's best films.
 
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

 
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