Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac, Tony Cox, and Brett Kelly in Bad Santa (2003)


(director: Terry Zwigoff; screenwriters: John Requa & Glenn Ficarra; cinematographer: Jamie Anderson; editor: Robert Hoffman; cast: Billy Bob Thornton (Willie T. Stokes), Bernie Mac (Gin), Lauren Graham (Sue), John Ritter (Bob Chipeska), Tony Cox (Marcus), Brett Kelly (The Kid, Thurman Murman), Cloris Leachman (Grandma), Lauren Tom (Lois); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Sarah Aubrey, John Cameron, Bob Weinstein; Dimension Films; 2003)

“As if the sweet traditional holiday films weren’t bad enough.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Terry Zwigoff’s (“Ghost World”/”Crumb”) Bad Santa poses as an antidote to all the usual syrupy Christmas holiday fare. It seems destined to be a cult favorite as a classical anti-Christmas regular on home video. It’s suited for those desiring a sacrilegious film taking cheap shots at the department Santa Claus. Those cherished icons revered in holiday films from the original 1947 Miracle on 34th Street onwards to Bill Murray’s more daring interpretation in the 1988 Scrooged. Billy Bob Thornton has found his perfect part as a shameless jerk in love with the sound of his own voice, after much success as a multi-talented character actor. This is a part seemingly inherited from someone like W.C. Fields. Drunk, foul-mouthed, slovenly, crooked, amoral, contemptible, and to boot a sex freak, Thornton is in his element in this fantasy comedy and makes the most of this juicy role–it goes with the territory that his Santa pisses in his pants and curses in front of the kids while in costume. That his Santa gig role is crude and unbelievable and soon this one-joke storyline grows tiresome and uneven, doesn’t mean it’s any different in its insulting and disingenuous storyline than the more traditional feel-good holiday movies. By the film’s conclusion it even softens its cynicism, something it originally used to sell itself as a badass black comedy with Santa wearing a “fuckstick.” It, at last, shows its true holiday formulaic colors as a traditional Scrooge story and even takes a bad turn at being as mushy as any of the Santa films it was satirizing. I understand the ending is not the filmmaker’s fault. His more fit ending was replaced by the studio suits, getting it from a script by committee, under the excuse they were under threat from Jack Valenti’s pack of vultures at the MPAA rating board to get a NC-17 rating.

The Coen brothers — executive producers –came up with the premise, and the film was co-scripted by John Requa & Glenn Ficarra.

I mildly enjoyed it as a guilty pleasure not because it was crass, anti-traditional or had anything worthwhile to say about how commercial and artificial Christmas has become, but because it made me laugh at its dumb sight gags and all the oddball characterizations caught my fancy.

Every Christmas for the last seven years, in a different locale, free-spirited, ex-con, safecracker Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) partners with a cold calculating black dwarf, Marcus (Tony Cox), and they become a department store team of Santa Claus and elf with the purpose of on Christmas Eve cracking the store safe. The action picks up in Phoenix, where effete store manager (John Ritter, in his last role) and the sly head of security (Bernie Mac) do their one-dimensional roles with sitcom efficiency, where they are mainly used as foils for the raunchy comical Santa and Elf duo. The flustered manager doesn’t know how to fire a drunken Santa who is also indulging in anal sex with over-sized women in the fitting room and is afraid to fire the black dwarf for bad publicity reasons, while the security man has ulterior motives for keeping the suspicious duo around. To make the loser Billy Bob redeemable he’s thrown together with a young sweet barmaid (Lauren Graham) who has a sexual thing for Santas and a loser, obese, retarded 8-year-old kid (Brett Kelly), who looks up to him because he’s a father-figure and is Santa. There’s skateboard bullies the dweebie kid has to deal with and a missing father and no mother, as he’s cared for by a batty and nearly always sleeping senile granny in his father’s stately home.

The heart of the story revolves around the innocent kid (Brett Kelly) tugging at Santa’s black heart, until a real relationship develops between the two misfits. It’s not much of a story but Billy Bob Thornton was a scream, Tony Cox was a devil of an elf, and Brett Kelly had a pleasant screen presence that helped move this wickedly sick comedy into a new type of tacky traditional Christmas tale–as if the sweet traditional holiday films weren’t bad enough.


REVIEWED ON 12/14/2003 GRADE: B-