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High-Spirited Naughtiness: Celebrating Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa

In an old movie review of mine written in Korean on one cold day of December 2008, I warned my blog readers: “If you do not want alcoholism, robbery, urination, lecherousness, R-rated curses, Santa fetish, kinky sex, homophobia, stalking, groin-kicking, blackmail, treachery, and a bizarre way of playing pinball machine from a movie to watch for the Christmas season, I sincerely recommend you to stay away from this movie.”

I was not kidding at all, and my warning about Terry Zwigoff’s dark and naughty Christmas comedy “Bad Santa” is the same as ever. This grumpy work isn't just one of most vicious Christmas movies I've ever seen, it's also one of the funniest, and it makes me laugh a lot as my eyes roll from its sheer comic lunacy. The movie pulls out lots of laughs by sticking to that bold and impertinent attitude to the very end of the story, and it never loses any bit of its mean and absurd sense of humor. 

For some people, Christmas is not a very cheerful time. Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is one of such cases. Besides being frequently drunk, he seems to be always bitter and morose, and he's quite an unpleasant case study of self-hate and self-destruction that you cannot help but look at him with awe and disgust. He has been nearly at the bottom physically and mentally; his body has been heavily damaged due to constant drinking and smoking, and most of what come out of his mouth are not nice things to hear at all. As a matter of fact, you will probably feel sorrier for his poor liver than him.

Willie is always drawn to the work he cannot easily refuse. Whenever Christmas is coming, Willie works as a Santa Claus in a department store with his dwarf partner Marcus (Tony Cox). We are amused by how lousy Willie is with kids who are eager to tell him what they want for Christmas. It's his last day to work, but he's already drunk, and he does not give a damn at all about those kids or how bad he looks.   

But actually, this isn't his real job. Willie is in fact a skillful safe-cracker, and Marcus is his partner-in-crime. When the holiday season is nearly over with lots of cash stored in the big safe of the department store, they strike and then run away with cash and some other valuable goods. They have successfully robbed numerous department stores this way, and have also managed to elude the police by selecting a new target every year. 

When Marcus calls again one year later to work in Arizona, Willie reaches to the new bottom while working as a Santa, and that exasperates Marcus, who is serious about their cover as well as their real job. Furthermore, his following misdemeanors happen to draw the unwanted attention of the over-sensitive manager of the department store, and the situation becomes more complicated when the manager later comes to have a talk with his head of security, who has his own idea about what to do with Willie and Marcus.  

I must tell you that this is just the tip of more insanity and indecency to follow, but it also becomes quite funnier. With the soundtrack plays a number of familiar pieces you might hear at department stores during the Christmas season, the movie gleefully hurls many cringe-inducing moments including one probably inspired by a certain notorious shooting scene from “Silent Night, Deadly Night” (1984), a repellent slasher horror movie featuring another naughty (and murderous) Santa.

Many of Zwigoff’s notable works such as “Crumb” (1995) and “Ghost World” (2001) are unconventional, and “Bad Santa” is no exception. For example, Willie is not surrounded by the kind of characters you'd see in a conventional Christmas movie. Marcus tries to be practical unlike his partner, but he's also as foul-mouthed as Willie, and he surely gives some barbed comments on Willie’s pathetic status from time to time. In the case of a chubby kid named Thurman (Brent Kelly) who comes to fixate on Willie, he looks a bit creepy on the surface, and he is also as pathologically persistent as Robert De Niro’s character in “The King of Comedy” (1982). When Willie goes to Thurman's big suburban house along with him later, the kid’s parents have been absent, and the only adult in the house is his senile grandmother, who is stiffly but memorably played by the late Cloris Leachman.  

Willie has no initial hesitation about exploiting the kid’s weird obsession with him. But as a man still quite bitter about his unhappy childhood, Willie comes to feel a little sorry for the kid’s desperate loneliness. By “helping” the kid at one point, Willie feels like he's accomplishing something for the first time in his life, and he also begins a relatively more meaningful relationship with a young woman named Sue (Lauren Graham), who has a Santa fetish for an understandable reason. While spending some time with Willie and the kid, Sue also comes to like the kid. Along with the kid’s grandmother, they start to look like a warped alternative family.

That does not mean the movie turns soft; neither does Billy Bob Thornton’s memorable performance. Thornton doesn't hesitate to unfold every repellent side of his unlikeable character in front of us while throwing himself into pure wretchedness. According to Zwigoff, Thornton was constantly drunk on the set, but Thornton did not lose the control at all, and the result is a comic equivalent of Harvey Keitel’s legendary performance in “Bad Lieutenant” (1992). Come to think of it, both “Bad Santa” and “Bad Lieutenant” are about a repellent hero who has given up the hope of rehabilitation as willfully going down further toward the abyss waiting for him and then is suddenly flabbergasted by the unlikely possibility of redemption. “Bad Santa” is the happier one of the pair because it is a comedy, but, as Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “the ending is happy in the same sense that a man’s doctors tell him he lost his legs but they were able to save his shoes.”

Thornton is also supported by several good supporting performers. Brent Kelly, as the boy who seems to be stuck in his own arrested development just like Thornton’s character, is effective right from his first scene, and you will immediately understand why Zwigoff insisted on casting him. Tony Cox skillfully delivers his many profanity-filled lines aimed at Thornton, and Graham provides some gentle warmness to the story. John Ritter, who died before the movie was released, and Bernie Mac, who is sadly no longer with us now, each have their own moment to shine. You may be delighted to spot the brief appearance of Alex Borstein, Matt Walsh, and Octavia Spencer, who would respectively be more familiar to us several years after the movie came out.   

It goes without saying that “Bad Santa” is a truly twisted comedy that may be too weird or offensive to your taste. But if you respect how willingly it charges into dark and dangerous territories for more uncomfortable laughs, you'll get a good amount of naughty fun from it. "Bad Santa" has malicious hilarity to be savored during these dark, cold winter nights. After all, adding some high-spirited naughtiness to Christmas is never boring.

Seongyong Cho

Seongyong Cho writes extensively about film on his site, Seongyong's Private Place.

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