Bad Santa (2003), Lookback/Review

Bad Santa may very well be the Funniest Movie Ever Made. However, this lookback/review is rated "R," just like the movie.


For some, the holidays are a time for laughter, love, generosity and cheer. For others/ the 99% of the population that is normal, it is one big season of schadenfreude.

If you are the sort of person who likes their eggnog liberally spiked, you are probably in the Bad Santa fan club. What is Bad Santa? A hilarious movie starring Billy Bob Thornton, the late and great Bernie Mac, Tony Cox and Mama Gilmore Lauren Graham. Add a script with a warped sense of humor, a child protagonist who is literally billed as “The Kid,” and a scheme to rob department stores on Christmas Eve, you basically get the R-rated Grinch with booze and a perpetual three o’clock shadow. Why this film doesn’t have more of a cult followin, or is at least played on FX as often as Elf is played on ABC Family is beyond me. Come on, cable television! Someone has to step up and give adults an antidote to the continual, irritating December barrage of A Christmas Story, Rudolph and Santa Claus is Coming To Town.

The movie’s plot is fairly simple. Con man Willie (Thornton) and his partner Marcus (Cox) are plotting to rob various department stores on Christmas Eve. To execute their plan, they respectively obtain jobs as department store Santa and his “helper” elf. Little do they know that the arrival of one blonde, decidedly un-cherubic, humdrum (but persistent) child will up end their plans and their lives.

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The delightful aspect of this movie is the way it takes Hollywood Christmas clichés and turns them upside down to then dump them on their butt with a wedgie. Naturally, in a holiday movie, you have to have a Santa. They do, but this Santa is a thief, a con man, an alcoholic and he hates children. You have to have a child, but instead of an adorably precocious Shirley Temple clone, you get the chubby, mostly silent, tiny stalker character of “The Kid.” A heartwarming bond between adult and child-in-need must be made and it is. But this bond is more hilarious than heartwarming and the “role model” adult still ends up shot and in jail (but in a positive manner… sort of).

In any comedy, much depends on the shoulders of the cast and boy do the actors of Bad Santa take the script and run with it. Naturally Lauren Graham is the mistress of line delivery comic timing. She sheds the squeaky-clean image of the Gilmore Girls and gives a great performance as tough as nails Sue. The great Bernie Mac as Gin and Tony Cox as Marcus are excellent in their supporting roles as well.

Naturally, many movies rest on their stars and Billy Bob Thornton takes his scruffy, bleary eyed, drunk and morally grey character Willie and turns it into a Master Class on comedy.  He is the reluctant anti-hero turned a little less reluctant anti-hero. The honesty with which he both uses and dispenses advice to “The Kid” is refreshing. Here is an adult who doesn’t condescend and while he may give his tag-a-long brutal truths, he never lets “The Kid” down. As a story of redemption, it does work, though it is far less Hallmark and much more Jack Daniels. In addition, he never has his character do a 180. Yes, it is possible, just possible that Willie comes to feel a sense of responsibility towards “The Kid.” But that doesn’t stop him from telling him to kick bullies in the crotch (advice which is taken and used to great effect).

The writing and directing are the real stars of the Bad Santa. The lines are crisp and if there’s ever a sentimental moment, you can be sure it will be accompanied by a kick in the balls (literally and figuratively). Some of the best, most quotable lines ever penned are by writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa in this script:

“Fuck the loofa, let’s go!”

“I said ‘Next,’ goddamn it! This is not the DMV!”

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“Good Night, Santa. Good Night Mrs. Santa’s Sister.”

 Comedy rooted in surprise and honesty always works, and is always memorable. Take this exchange between Sue and Willie:

 Sue: I’ve always had a thing for Santa Claus. In case you didn’t notice. It’s like some deep seated, childhood thing. 

Willie: So is my thing for tits.

Completely in character, yet also hysterical because well, what else is Willie supposed to say to a Santa fetish?

However, the supporting cast gold star in this movie goes, without question, to the late John Ritter. The last film he made before his early death in 2003, he plays store owner (and therefore Willie’s boss) Bob Chipeska. Uptight, nervous and perfectly deadpan about the shenanigan circus that surrounds him, he is at his understated best in this role.  Ritter’s demeanor  when he talks to Gin (Bernie Mac) about Willie’s anal sex antics with a prostitute in the dressing room is priceless and a performance that no one should miss. 

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The writers also employ voiceover to excellent effect. Often voiceover is overused or employed as a crutch/substitute for weak dialogue. Not in this film. Instead of being distracting, the VO is worked seamlessly into the action. The comments made by Willie to the audience are never redundant and often give insight into the character.

Credit must also be given to director Terry Zwigoff, who reins in the script and his stars to excellent effect. Equal concentration is given to character and plot development, as well as to the comedy. Though pratfalls, dirty jokes, sight gags and blue language abound, the pace of the story clips along and we never lose sight of the human in the joke (or the costume). Sure, the sight of Marcus as a midget, African American elf is guaranteed to provoke laughter. But we also are never allowed to forget that Marcus is one badass dude who is very familiar with using, conning and manipulating people to score it big in the criminal world.

Frankly, Bad Santa isn’t for everyone. It pretty much tries to (and succeeds) to offend each and every segment of society. The concept of merry ole Santa Claus is trashed, stepped on, stolen from and then shot in broad daylight by a police force, who is caught on camera and then broadcast to the traumatization of children everywhere. Granted, this is not the film to show your five-year old. But, if you’ve been to your 18th Christmas pageant this season (and it’s only halfway through December!), are tired of pushing your way through crowds to buy another Barbie for your niece, and/or have a crush on Billy Bob Thornton, go and watch Bad Santa. It’s a cure for all holiday blues and, to borrow from the language of the film, it’s just fuckin’ funny.




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