November 30, 2003 -- “Bad Santa” is a very dark comedy, but a very funny one. I know, it sounds like a bad idea for a movie: a story about a lecherous, drunken, foul-mouthed criminal posing as Santa Claus who rips off the department stores he works for on Christmas Eve. Crazy as that sounds, this film really works.
Billy Bob Thornton of “Monster's Ball” stars as Willie, the bad Santa, a drunken safe cracker whose life is spinning out of control. His partner, the dwarf Marcus (Tony Cox of “Me, Myself & Irene”) is the real brains of the operation. He figures out how to disable the security alarms in the various stores and paves the way for Willie to crack the store safe. He also works as an elf with Willie in the department stores they rob. Marcus' wife, Lois, (Lauren Tom of “Jack the Dog”), drives the getaway car. Willie and Marcus have been partners for years, but their relationship is near the breaking point. Willie's drinking and his bad judgement are threatening their profitable seasonal operation.
The movie begins on Christmas Eve and we see one of the store heists. Marcus hides in a Christmas display costume and rushes to disable the alarm system, in a scene full of sight gags. Willie staggers in, drunk, and works on the safe. Afterwards, Willie says he is getting out of the business, but Marcus knows he will waste all his money and will be back next Christmas for another heist. The next Christmas Willie's drinking has gotten worse. He almost gets fired by the store manager, Bob Chipeska (played by the late John Ritter of “Tadpole”). The store detective, Gin (Bernie Mac of “Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle”) starts to suspect that something is not right with this foul-mouthed Santa and his elf sidekick. Strangely, Willie manages to snag a good-looking girlfriend, Sue (Lauren Graham of “Dill Scallion”), who has a “thing” about Santa. Willie also finds a place to hide out at the home of an unhappy kid (played by Brett Kelly of “Cheats”). The obese, luckless kid, named Thurman Merman, his senile grandmother, Willie and Sue make up an extremely strange, but somehow marginally functional, household.
The relationship between Willie and the kid is an odd one. Thurman thinks that Willie is Santa Claus and he stubbornly continues to be nice to Willie. Eventually Willie becomes a sort of father figure to the hapless kid. The boy's mother is gone and his father is in prison. The movie makes the argument that even a terrible surrogate parent like Willie is better than no parent at all. Willie teaches Thurman that he has to stand up for himself. He also tells Thurman not to believe the loser labels that other kids try to pin on him. By the end of the movie, Thurman does seem to be developing a backbone. The relationships between Willie, Sue and Thurman are warm. These about the only slightly sentimental things in this film. Willie has softened up a little by the end of the movie.
By and large, however, Willie, Marcus and Lois remain very unrepentant. They are vicious, cruel, even murderous thugs. Willie is very self-destructive. He seems bent on drinking himself to death. He hates his life so much he attempts suicide at one point. Marcus hates Willie with a passion. Just how much he hates him isn't revealed until the end of the film. Despite all the ugly things in this film, including bushels of profanity (the F word is used countless times) and debauchery, it is a funny story which carefully straddles a thin line between bad taste and dark comedy. It has just enough sentimentality and humanity in it to keep it from going over the edge into total corruption. Thornton and Tony Cox are both outstanding in their roles in this film. Bernie Mac also turns in a fine, understated performance as the store detective. His scenes with John Ritter and with Thornton and Cox are fabulous. Writer-director Terry Zwigoff (“Ghost World”) modulates the tone of this finely-tuned comedy to perfection. Writer-directors Ethan and Joel Coen provided the story for this film and their funny, twisted brand of humor is very evident in the final product. Others who worked on this slick screenplay are John Requa and Glenn Ficarra and Arnie Marx. This film rates a B+.
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