Bad Santa

Family friendly comedy, assuming you're the Manson family. Quality foulmouthed rantings from Thornton make this rather nifty.

Released in 2003, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 15 Dec 2004 by Scott Morris
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Christmas. A time of the year I'm grateful to whatever deity I'm believing in at that particular time that I'm not working in a shop, more to do with the continually looped tapes of appalling music than the volume of customers. There's a rough parallel for the habitual moviegoer though, the Christmas Movie. It's a numbers game that's not stacked in our favour; for every Elf there's two or three Jingle All The Ways, for every Scrooged another few Santa Clauses ready to assault your goodwill. Amongst this years efforts (in Blighty at least), this year sees the ratio continue with Christmas with the Kranks and Surviving Christmas sweetened a little by the presence of Bad Santa

Antithesis to the family friendly mirthless time waster, Bad Santa sees alcoholic safecracker Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) and his little elf friend Marcus (Tony Cox) pose as harmless seasonal workers for December before giving themselves an Xmas bonus by lifting the takings on Christmas Eve. The scam has been working well enough for years despite Willie's descent into shambolic alcohol dependance, although their latest attempt seems like it may present a few more problems. Willie's outbursts are in danger of getting their little crime unit fired and a local kid (Brett Kelly) has decided that this particular Santa is an appropriate father figure to latch on to.

Which unwittingly leads to Willie's redemption as The Kid grows on him, though not enough to call him by his name. Given that his name is Thurman Murman, that's probably a small mercy. The plot for this foul mouthed yuletide adventure is largely of secondary concern; at times it seems the thievery that this would apparently centre on was added purely to enable a dramatic ending and a few moments of dialogue with ineffectual store manager Bob Chipeska (the very missed and very dead John Ritter) and wily store detective Gin (Bernie Mac). With added flavour from Sue (Lauren Graham), a barmaid with a slight Santa fetish, it becomes clear that the focus is centred on Billy Bob.

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Wisely enough, as it turns out. Let's get the caveats in early - this is about as far away from highbrow humour as it's possible to get, probably not what you'd expect from director Terry Zwigoff last responsible for respected melancholic indy hit Ghost World. This is essentially Willie getting drunk, swearing and being baffled by the behaviour of the kid who through a contrivance not worth mentioning he ends up moving in with. It might not be big or clever, but it's also far, far funnier than it has any right to be.

Simply, Thornton is absolutely flawless. Managing to be likeable despite being borderline sociopathic is a delicate art and one that he's nailed to a tee. His delivery is an unfolding work of minor genius, an expletive laden ninety minute tirade that somehow doesn't outwear it's welcome. A small miracle, but then it is Christmas so perhaps that's appropriate.

Still, he's not alone in the film. There's not a weak link in the supporting cast either, Tony Cox proving himself more than equal in trading barbs with the rest of the cast if not in stature. Ritter's understated turn as the nervous middle manager not quite comprehending the human whirlwind that attends Willie provides a well judged straight man routine for both Thornton and Bernie Mac to play against.

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Bernie Mac himself would steal the show were a lesser talent in the lead role, but thankfully he's given a lot more to work with here than in the disastrous Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. He shares the talent for delivery that Thornton so ably displays, and his interaction with Ritter creates some of the most memorable moments in the movie. Apart from the scene in the boxing ring where everyone's getting punched in the nuts. He's not in that. But it's still funny. I never claimed to be sophisticated.

Delivery of lines is of little consequence if said are sub-par, but some of the stuff Glenn Ficarra & John Requa have come up with is sublime. Puerile and with expletives used so heavily it goes past ridiculous into unacceptable then through that back into bloody silly territory, but amusing nonetheless. If Brett Kelly didn't have a good handle on swearing before filming he'll be an expert by now. You might not necessarily expect a script like this to come from the writers of kiddie friendly fare like Cats & Dogs, but this I suppose was their way of venting.

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Kudos to Zwigoff's framing of the scenes must also be given. While it may not be apparent on initial viewing garnering the screen grabs for this showed something remarkable - many of the shots have been framed almost exactly as you'd expect a comic strip to be drawn. Why this is an enhancement I'm not precisely sure but it works, leaving the only negative points being the forgivable lack of anything more than a perfunctory plot which isn't too important in character based work and the sheer volume of the swearing, which is more or less indefensible but round these parts at least we've long since ceased to be offended by it.

Not perfect by any means, and will be far too obscenity-laced and childish for some. Still, if you're anything like me then I'm truly sorry for you but if nothing else you'll find Bad Santa tickling your fancy. It's a great escape if the continuous yuletide assault that we're enduring is all getting a little too much, while at the same time purveying the morals and true meaning of the season, if in a twisted way. Spiffing. Eggnog all round.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Terry Zwigoff
Cast list:
Billy Bob Thornton (Willie)
Tony Cox (Marcus)
Brett Kelly (The Kid)
Lauren Graham (Sue)
Lauren Tom (Lois)
Bernie Mac (Gin)
John Ritter (Bob Chipeska)