Things have been heavy around here for a little while, so it’s time to lighten them up!
Different families have different kinds of traditions. Some families all put on matching holiday sweaters and sing carols, and talk about how much they all appreciate each other. The rest of earth doesn’t do anything remotely like that, and the holidays can be a time of heightened tensions and old emotions broiling forth. Stress and the holidays go together like peas and carrots, and there’s a reason that liquor store owners don’t take the holidays off.
I saw Bad Santa in the theater with my folks in the merry old year of 2003. I have no idea why we wound up seeing it, it wasn’t the sort of thing my parents usually watch, but my gosh, it made us laugh. Of course most of it is in bad taste, but sometimes a good, old-fashion blitz on the senses is necessary to retaining one’s sanity.
Bad Santa is the story of Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), a safecracker with a personal history as scrawled and dreary as bathroom stall graffiti, whose drinking has left him with one foot in the grave. He and his little person partner, Marcus (played by Tony Cox) have a pretty sweet scam set up where Willie poses as a mall Santa and Marcus as his elf. They meander through the month of December, and then on Xmas Eve, mercilessly rob whatever mall they’ve been working at. There’s just one problem – Willie has become worse and worse over the years, barely able to maintain his drinking so that they can get through the job. At the beginning of the movie they pull off another heist, with Willie swearing he’s done, Marcus disgusted with how wasted he is, and promising that Willie’ll be begging him for work come the next Xmas Eve.
Bad Santa is abrasive and downright hostile – laughing at it can make you feel guilty, but it’s also damn near impossible NOT to laugh. There’s loads of foul language and sight gags – a bedraggled, wilted mall Santa passed out on his throne who has also pissed his pants in a stupor, being berated by an indignant little person… it should be grossly offensive and tasteless, and yet it’s not. On the surface, it’s a movie about miserable people doing shitty things, but of course, it has a subtext: it’s about dealing with the adversities of life.
Everybody is doing their best in life, for different values of “best.” In Willie’s case, his best means he is at least not murdering co-eds and dumping their bodies somewhere. A creepy drunken skeezebag who’ll steal a car, ogle teenage girls, and commit all manner of property crimes, but at least he’s not a murderer! Like many people handed a raw deal in life, Willie defines himself by negatives rather than positives, by things he hasn’t done rather than by things he has.
Willie’s path staggers across that of Thurmond Merman, a child borne to bear the cruelties of mankind with none of the harsh defenses that Willie has learned. Thurmond is rotund, with tightly-curled golden hair, a round guileless face, and a predilection for non sequiters and endless questions. His father is “exploring mountains” (imprisoned for embezzling) and he is cared for by an elderly Grandma who splits her time between watching television and making sandwiches, while laboring under a case of severe dementia. A walking target in a cruel world, Thurmond seems to find a surrogate father in Willie, who he insists on calling “Santa” and invites back to stay in his McMansion in an Arizona suburb.
Marcus continues with the plans to rob the store, Bernie Mac appears as a crooked store security officer, and Willie continues his slow slide into oblivion. But there are all manner of ways back from the edge of oblivion, and Willie finds his when he beats the shit out of some teenaged mall bullies who have beaten up Thurmond. “I think a turned a corner today,” he says philosophically later. “I beat up some kids, but it was for a good reason.”
As I said before, everyone is doing their best, for certain values of “best.” And just like real life, all you can worry about is what you have accomplished, rather than what you haven’t.
I will drop my usual caveat that Bad Santa isn’t for everyone – it is bleak, dark, and profane. However, like Willie, it is not without redemption.
Here are some of the highlights from the film. TOTALLY NSFW!!!!
BUT! If you enjoy the bleak, dark, and profane, then get ready for a REAL holiday treat!