Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 93 minutes
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“Bad Santa” is a rank, lumpy skidmark smeared across the underwear of filmmakers who should know better. With “Crumb” director Terry Zwigoff teaming up with producers Joel and Ethan Coen, expectations of a quirky, cerebral comedy classic are high. Throw Billy Bob Thornton into this subversive stew as an alcoholic Saint Nick who makes the Grinch look like Fred Rogers, and “Bad Santa” becomes even more promising.
Instead of providing a new spin on holiday cheer, however, “Bad Santa” is a frozen pile of reindeer droppings. The cinematic equivalent to passing a kidney stone, Zwigoff’s unholy foray into “dark comedy” gives us a suicidal, sociopathic drunk slinging swear words with a ferocity that would make Tony Montana wince.
Willie Stokes (Thornton) is a sloshed department store Santa who entertains children while their parents indulge in holiday sales. The fact that Willie urinates on the North Pole props that surround his Santa chair, throws whiskey bottles through car windows in the parking lot, and shags women in the store’s clothing department dressing rooms are only the tip of a vile iceberg. Assisted by an elf-costumed dwarf named Marcus (Tony Cox), Willie cases out the stores that employ him, then robs their safes and merchandise after-hours.
“Bad Santa” begins its morbid sleigh ride to Hell with the familiar image of an urban, upscale watering hole decked out in trees and tinsel. Smiling faces toast the Yuletide season. Upbeat energy fills Zwigoff’s frame. This life affirming mood takes a quick nosedive, however, as the camera pans across the bar to pickled scumbag Stokes, who is surrounded by shot glasses and swallowed up by a moth-eaten Santa suit three sizes too large. “Life sucks ass,” proclaims this upstanding optimist.
We then travel with Willie and Marcus to Phoenix, Arizona, the scene of their next annual store theft. “Bad Santa” staggers into a kind of surreal fog when this haggard, stubble-faced slimeball befriends a young obese boy. After presenting the creepy Claus with a Christmas wish list, the Kid (Brett Kelly) invites this grizzled waste case home with him. In a move straight out of Neverland Ranch, Stokes takes up residence with the lad.
After realizing that this cherubic, curly-haired innocent lives in a luxurious house with only an Alzheimer’s stricken grandmother, Stokes thoughtfully robs the estate’s greenback-filled safe. “Do you need money to fix your sleigh?” asks the naïve moppet as this lowlife pillages the family fortune. “Exactly,” confirms Thornton shamelessly as he lifts the loot.
Things get even creepier when Stokes hooks up with Sue, a slutty waitress (Lauren Graham). “I’ve always had a thing for Santas,” she hollers in mid-coitus, insisting that Stokes leave his red and white suit on during their intimate tryst. “I grew up Jewish, so it was always kind of a forbidden thing.” Yikes! Eventually the frisky bar wench moves in with Stokes, junior, and granny, completing a surrogate family that makes the porno clan from “Boogie Nights” seem like something off of Walton Mountain.
Fans of Bob Goldthwait’s similarly hideous misfire “Shakes the Clown” might enjoy this lowbrow crawl through the gutter. The script is grade Z Adam Sandler fare. Supporting players, including the late John Ritter as a spineless store manager and Bernie Mac as a scheming security chief, wade through this predigested lark vomit like desperate sewer rats.
Only Tony Cox, playing Thornton’s pint-sized comrade in crime, conjures up any real enthusiasm. During one of the film’s few truly funny moments, Cox’s vertically-challenged character engages in a drinking match with Stokes, only to get criticized by his blitzed friend for not keeping up. “What do you expect,” Cox responds defiantly. “I only weigh 92 pounds!”
Why would Dimension Films, the Coens, Zwigoff, and Thornton be attracted to “Bad Santa”? Perhaps Zwigoff, whose past onscreen misanthropes explained their contempt for others through family dysfunction (“Crumb”) or rebellion against commercial culture (“Ghost World”), felt that Stokes would fit into his gallery of disenchanted fringe-dwellers. But I smell a quick, lucrative payday at the stinky bottom of this career-squelching cinematic landfill.
“Bad Santa” might fill up the stockings of his slumming, back-end business partners, but the rest for the rest of us, he’s as jolly as a trip to detox on Christmas eve.
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Posted on November 26, 2003 in Reviews by KJ Doughton
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