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Review: Bad Santa (2003)

Bad Santa (2003)

Directed by: Terry Zwigoff

Premise: A burglar (Billy Bob Thornton) and his associate (Tony Cox) pose as a shopping mall Santa and his elf with intentions of robbing the mall safe on Christmas Eve. Complications arise as the mall security director begins to suspect the plot and the burglar befriends a lonely boy.

What Works: Bad Santa has a reputation as a vulgar and mean spirited movie but even though it has a lot of crass humor the picture is smarter and sweeter than its public image. This film was directed by Terry Zwigoff, who also directed the documentary Crumb and the feature films Ghost World and Art School Confidential and this has similar sensibilities. Many of Zwigoff’s movies have focused on outsiders trying and usually failing to function in society and there is a darkly ironic streak running through his work. Bad Santa shares these qualities. The world of the film is slightly off kilter but in a way that is humanly flawed instead of self-consciously awkward in the way so many indie films often are. The title character of Bad Santa is a vulgar and drunken criminal and placing such a person in a Santa suit and setting a child on his lap is itself enough for a laugh. The filmmakers manage to play out that joke without overextending it and they find other sources of humor by creating various subplots that divert the movie from its premise. The humor of Bad Santa is unapologetically crude but it also serves a purpose. Christmas movies are often about redemption and new beginnings but in the rush to deliver that kind pleasant emotional playoff Christmas filmmakers often avoid difficult subjects or situations. That has the ironic effect of cheapening the drama which prevents the filmmakers from maneuvering their audience into the intended emotional state. As a result filmmakers sometimes resort to offputting gushes of sentimentality. The lead character of Bad Santa is an awful human being but that gives him a place to grow from and the crude humor of Bad Santa functions within the movie by giving the audience some laughs and clearing the space for them to accept the emotional elements that come later. It’s the tension between the failings of the characters in Bad Santa and their aspirations to something better that gives this film its humanity. The actors capitalize on that in their performances. Billy Bob Thornton plays the title character and Thornton is very good here, giving one of his best performances. Less flashy but also integral to the success of the film is Bret Kelly as The Kid. It is a careful but quiet performance, the kind that is often underappreciated. The film also stars John Ritter in his final on-screen role as a spineless mall administrator and Ritter is terrific in an awkward role. Because of the humanity of the characters, the filmmakers of Bad Santa are able to avoid one of the common pitfalls of these kinds of movies. Stories that are structured around obnoxious lead characters nearly always run into the same problem: for the character to grow, he or she has to become less obnoxious, and that usually undermines the concept of the film. Bad Santa works in such a way that the main character develops over the course of the movie while still retaining his frailty and flaws.

What Doesn’t: The weakest element of Bad Santa is the love story between the burglar played by Billy Bob Thornton and a bartender played by Lauren Graham. Both actors are competent and manage to give their relationship some credibility but it contributes very little to the movie and the subplot could be eliminated with little cost to the story. Bad Santa is also one of those movies in which the flaws of the premise become obvious if the viewer stops to think it through. Thornton’s character is so sloppy that it is hard to believe he is competent enough to pull off a heist and the twist in the ending comes out of nowhere. Fortunately these weaknesses are couched in a movie that is otherwise so well made that they are passable, especially on the first viewing.

DVD extras: There are at least three different cuts of Bad Santa: the original theatrical cut, the ninety-nine minute unrated edition, and the eight-eight minute director’s cut. Of these three editions, the director’s cut represents director Terry Zwigoff’s intended version. The blu-ray edition of Bad Santa includes both the unrated and the director’s cut versions of the film.

Bottom Line: Bad Santa successfully mixes crude humor with colorful characters. It may not be a movie for everyone but there is much more to this film than its reputation would suggest and it manages to be a far more authentic Christmas movie than many attempts by other filmmakers.

Episode: #420 (December 23, 2012)