Bad Santa (2003) Review

Bad Santa (2003)
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Lauren Graham, Bernie Mac.
Director: Terry Zwigoff.
Plot: Two con men pose as a Santa and elf attraction in shopping centres in order to steal from the stores on Christmas Eve. Things get complicated when the con man’s actions become increasingly reckless and endanger their cover.

Bad Santa is one of those Christmas films that has a tendency to slip under the radar. It never seems to be a well-known film, but equally it’s not unheard of. In truth, it’s not a typical Christmas film and it’s certainly not one of the first films shown on TV leading up to the festive season; it’s no family favourite. Bad Santa is a comedy that goes against the traditional Christmas film, it glorifies crooks who commit robberies during Christmas and depicts a sex and drink obsessed Santa Claus. With the most profanities in any Christmas film, Bad Santa is the perfect film for those who don’t enjoy traditional Christmas films, but it’s still a film that deserves more recognition as an enjoyable holiday season movie.

Bad Santa is a story about a depressed and miserable con man, Willie (Thornton), who dresses up as Santa every December with his partner in crime Marcus (Cox), Santa’s chief elf. Together they go from shopping centre to shopping centre posing as Santa and his elf for children but, on the last night, they break into the stores and rob them before Christmas. This year Willie’s heightened bad behaviour has gotten worse as he shows little regard for clashing his frequent inappropriate behaviour with his work. This alerts the security chief of the shopping centre (Mac), who slowly becomes aware of their plan. All the while, Willie’s miserable approach to Christmas begins to change as he befriends a troubled child and starts dating a local barmaid, Sue (Graham), who both show him the true meaning of Christmas and slowly influence him to change his ways.

The image of a drunk Santa Claus stopping to vomit in an alleyway amidst heavy Christmas snow is the not so picturesque opening and tone for a Coen brothers-devised screenplay of the most audacious Christmas film ever produced. Bad Santa parodies the happy, festive and family side of Christmas by creating the character of Willie who is the complete opposite: he has no family, he hates Christmas and he’s miserable. In fact, Bad Santa is almost a live-action retelling of The Grinch. Willie is a man who distances himself from everyone else, with one exception. He hates Christmas and he’s envious of those who are happy and celebrate it so, like the Grinch, rather than embrace it, he steals it. Willie doesn’t necessarily steal from the townspeople like the Grinch does, but he does steal from its main source of Christmas gifts, which is perhaps more of a symbolic reference. Just like the Grinch, Willie’s feelings and attitudes are changed when he meets a small child, who teaches him the true meaning of Christmas and influences him to change his ways and celebrate Christmas like everyone else. Willie is more of an ‘adults’ Grinch: he drinks, smokes, he’s a sex pest and has little to no regard to anyone else’s well-being.

Thornton does an exceptional job at playing the troubled Santa impersonator. Everything he does just seems so natural and believable for the character he’s playing – most of this could be down to the fact he was genuinely drunk during some parts of filming. Thornton simply epitomizes the low-life booze addict and nails every single mannerism and detail you would expect from his character. Whilst he doesn’t expel likeability, we can appreciate that he his a tragic character. At the very start of the film he accepts his miserable life through a dark monologue, which has made him who he is, and he acknowledges and accepts that he’ll never be able to change. Yet, throughout the film he has moments where he shows not only that he can be a good person, but that he even enjoys it. Willie’s occasional moments of redemption clash with his persistent outbreaks, which help maintain a consistent feeling of sympathy towards his tragic character. This balance is further portrayed through Marcus, who spends most of his time criticising and insulting Willie, insisting he’s on a constant downward spiral and through Sue, who sees and helps bring out the best in him. Further credit goes to Cox and Mac for their hilarious comedic performances – Cox whose memorable one-liners and insults get better as his relationship with Willie gets worse and Mac whose on-screen presence dominates anyone he shares the screen with.

The only criticism I could really give the film is where it borders on being believable. A film doesn’t necessarily have to be believable to be good, even more so in comedy films as more often than not comedy plot-lines sit on top of a ridiculous idea or circumstance. However, there’s still a degree of it being believable that’s required. In Bad Santa it’s very difficult to believe that Willie and Marcus get away with a lot of their behaviour, the film doesn’t go into detail on how they’ve pulled off seven successful jobs prior, but that’s not really the issue. The issue lies in Willie himself who makes little to no effort in being a believable santa to the children; drinking on the job, falling asleep and showing no joy or effort in general at being a convincing Santa. This issue is raised by the shopping centre’s manager, who is blackmailed into keeping them on until Christmas, but it doesn’t explain the parents themselves who would surely not want to expose their children to such a character. It’s hard to believe they get as far as they do, let alone that they have been successful for seven years.

Director Terry Zwigoff creates a festive atmosphere without going too cheesy and overboard whilst maintaining a dark comedic undertone. It’s not a Christmas film for everyone, it’s a film that draws in comedy, Christmas and even non-Christmas fans. It’s a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously and I know I’ve explained this before, but people often forget that films don’t have to be award winners to be good, some films are simply made to entertain and Bad Santa is one of them. Not the most creative or thought-out story, but a decent script, convincing acting and a wonderfully festive soundtrack.

Score: 16/24

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