A movie like Bad Santa shouldn’t exist but I’m glad it does. It came out two years after 9/11 when everything was expected to be just peachy. For God’s sake, a movie like Chicago won Best Picture that year. Remember Chicago? No. Well, no one does. The 2000s was the worst decade for American cinema and one day I am going to do a blog explaining this further.
Bad Santa is basically the department store scene from A Christmas Story extended into a full-length feature movie. The same holiday season that saw Elf and Love Actually, also saw this in theaters. Bad Santa was for all the people disgusted with Love‘s hokey sentiments or frustrated at what so funny about Will Ferrell screaming for 100 minutes.
Billy Bob Thornton plays the titular character, a low-life cretin whose only skill is being a safecracker. He plays Willie T. Soke who Thornton plays perfectly as a man who doesn’t care for anyone much less himself. He is just always looking for whatever booze he can keep down and any woman who wants to have sex with him. A running gag in the movie is that Willie likes performing anal sex on plus-sized woman. Olivia Spencer before her Oscar win and before she shed a few pounds is a prostitute he sodomized that she “couldn’t shit right for a week.”
Willie works as a mall Santa. If this movie had been released when Thornton won his Oscar for Sling Blade, he might have fit the role more as a department Santa. But Thornton himself had shed some weight. The fact that he is a skinny Santa is something no one speaks about. Willie works with his associate, Marcus (Tony Cox), a dwarf who dresses up as an elf. But actually what Willie and Marcus are doing are ripping off the malls they work at.
They work at the malls to case them. Then, on Christmas Eve when the mall is closed, Willie will break into the main office and crack open the safe, taking the money while Marcus goes shopping for his girlfriend, Lois (Lauren Tom), who helps them case the mall while she makes her own Christmas list of stuff for Marcus to steal. Even in 2003, most of these stores in the malls would be doing nightly deposits in their banks. It’s never explained how a mall main office would have a safe with wads of cash in it. But it’s something you have to have a little suspension of disbelief.
The movies opens with them successfully ripping off a mall in Milwaukee. Over celebratory drinks, they have a disagreement where Willie says he’s going to stop drinking and clean up, but Marcus knows better. By the next year, Willie is down in Florida having blown most of his money and living in a motel running from creditors. Marcus calls him and says they got a new job at a mall in Phoenix.
The mall manager there, Bob Chipeska (the wonderfuly cast John Ritter in his last role), who is such a weiner he acts like he’s never heard swear words before. Naturally, Willie begins to show his same problems he’s exhibited earlier that Marcus is often trying to cover for by checking out a woman’s ass too much and speaking vulgarities. Chipeska has the head of mall security, Gin (Bernie Mac), look into Willie and Marcus.
At the same time, Willie finds a local bartender, Sue (Lauren Graham), who has a Santa fetish and is ready to have sex with him at a moment’s notice. Willie meets a dorky chubby kid, Thurman Murman (Brett Kelly), who isn’t too bright, but helps him out when a bar patron (Ajay Naidu) tries to start trouble outside in the parking lot. Willie takes Thurman home in an attempt to rob his family but discovers only his senile Grandma (Cloris Leachman) lives there. Thurman says his mother passed away and his father is in prison.
Still, Willie does rob Thurman’s father’s safe and take his BMW. But when Gin begins nosing around Willie’s motel room, he moves in with Thurman, realizing that neither he nor his grandmother can comprehend what he’s doing there. And soon, Sue is coming over to enjoy in some of the amenties of their luxurious house. But Marcus is worried about how this will look.
Eventually, Gin discovers what they’re up to and rather than turn them into police, he wants a cut of the action, meaning he’ll take half of whatever they get from the vault and first pick of anything Marcus steals for Lois or else he’ll go to the police. This causes Willie to go on a further downward spiral but seems only to keep himself going as he begins to bond with Thurman.
Bad Santa originally began as a Coen Brothers production before they left the production to focus on other projects. They remain credited as executive producers. They originally wanted James Gandolfini for the role. He had co-starred in their 1940s black-and-white film noir The Man Who Wasn’t There, also featuing Thornton.
They got Glenn Ficarra and John Requa who had previously written the family-friendly Cats & Dogs to finish the script. They are also credited as writers on the Bad News Bears remake, also starring Thornton, and get a story by credit on Looney Tunes: Back in Action. It’s a crazy contrast of movies the writing duo, but they do a great job. Part of the reason is there’s actually a plot with a character arc. It’s one thing to have a man in a Santa suit dropping the F-bombs and having freaky sex with women. It’s another to make him a sympathetic character.
Willie says over a voice-over narration that he was heavily abused by his alcoholic father. He’s served time in prison and he’s been married and divorced twice. A sequel featured Kathy Bates as his criminal mom. Thornton does a nice role of portraying Willie as a person who looks like he needs a good shower and shave and someone who would be a far more respectable person if only he laid off the booze. Thornton reportedly performed most of the role under the influence of alcohol.
Terry Zwigoff directed the movie and he often focuses on people who you wouldn’t want to be in an elevator with for 30 seconds, much the less spend an hour and a half with. Miramax, which released the movie through its banner Dimension Films reportedly hired Todd Phillips to direct a few extra scenes, one in which Willie eats all the candy in Thurman’s advant calendar during a drunken stupor. During another, he teaches Thurman how to box with Marcus brought in as a sparring partner.
Despite its R-rating and profanity, Bad Santa got some good reviews and was a modest hit at the box office earning over $76 million on a $23 million budget. As I said, a sequel was released in 2016 but unfortunately it bombed at the box office. Mainly it’s because it’s the same movie and while some people might like to see the same thing, I don’t think they would pay more money after 13 years to see it again.
The movie was a good showcase for Cox who had mostly been doing bit parts in movies or appearing under make-up and in costumes in movies. He manages to hold his own against Mac and Thornton and becomes the breakout star of the movie.
So, if you don’t care for Miracle on 34th Street and want something that packs a little more of a punch, this one is for you.
What do you think? Please comment.