For the third film of Christmas my true love gave to me . . .
OK so, there’s this film about a profane, alcoholic, miserable safe-cracker who poses as Santa with his little helper, a black dwarf, and together they rob the department stores that provide them with seasonal employment. This works well until the thief befriends an overweight kid with self-esteem problems and slowly begins to develop a conscience. On top of that the security boss of the department store discovers their plot and wants a taste of the action. On the surface the premise of Bad Santa (2003) sounds like the plot of a typical Coen Brothers movie and you wouldn’t be far wrong if you thought that – the Coens were involved as executive producers – but it was written by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, whose previous form was The Wild Thornberrys and The Angry Beavers for Nickleodeon and the underwhelming Cats & Dogs (2001). It was directed by Terry Zwigoff, who was also responsible for the award winning documentary Crumb (1994) and the excellent Ghost World (2001).
Ficarra and Requa took a giant leap forward from their previous work with a screenplay that is both hilarious and touching. This, however, is Billy Bob Thornton’s film all the way. From his astonishing big break as murderer Karl Childers in Sling Blade (1996) – a film he also wrote and directed – through to the coolly psychotic Lorne Malvo in the terrific TV series of Fargo (2014), via Bill Paxton’s simpleton brother Jacob in Sam Raimi’s superb thriller A Simple Plan (1998), the blackmailing barber Ed Crane in the Coen Brothers’ noir crime drama The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and the philandering US President in Love Actually (2003), he has proved himself to be a consistently surprising and versatile actor, capable of playing any role no matter how big or small it is.
In Bad Santa Billy Bob plays probably the most disgusting character of his career – he’s a foul mouthed department store Santa called Willie, who is abusive to the kids and the parents, he is constantly drunk and regularly has sex with customers in the ‘outsized’ changing rooms. He has no respect for person or property and is a low-life of the highest order. He hates his life and wants to change but is unable to find the means to effect that change – until, that is, he meets a socially challenged, bullied, overweight kid who is looked after by his demented grandma and who thinks his father is climbing mountains when he’s actually in prison. He's in desperate need of a role model in his life and unfortunately (at first) he chooses Willie to be that person.
When they first meet in the department store the kid says, “Your beard’s not real.”
“No shit,” replies Willie, “it was real, but I got sick and all the hair fell out.”
“I loved a woman who wasn’t clean.”
“No, it was her sister.”
In a later exchange, the kid asks, “Do you and Mrs Santa have kids?”
“No,” replies Willie, “thank the fuck Christ.”
“What about the elves?”
“Well, they stay with Mrs Santa. I get them at the weekends.”
It’s conversations like these and many others that make the relationship between Willie and the kid so convincing and so funny and it’s actually quite touching to watch Willie slowly realise that life isn’t just all about him and he begins to soften at the edges and teach the kid some much needed life skills.
If you haven’t seen this film before, please don’t be deceived into thinking that it has a nice Disney-like conclusion where everyone is happy just because it's Christmas – there is no schmaltzy ending to the story. It has an ending that is true to the story’s central character – he’s not completely redeemed, but he’s getting there . . . maybe.
And don't go thinking that because Billy Bob Thornton is so convincing as this despicable man then the supporting cast aren’t worth a mention. Every great actor (with the possible exception of Sam Rockwell) needs a strong supporting cast to make them look a good as they do. Brett Kelly is wonderfully weird as the kid; Tony Cox (who was so good in the Farrelly Brothers brilliantly tasteless comedy Me, Myself and Irene) plays Willie’s partner-in-crime; Bernie Mac is the security man on the take; Lauren Graham is the waitress who likes to have sex with Santa; and there’s the wonderful and sadly missed John Ritter (this was his final role – he died from an undiagnosed aortic dissection before the film was released) as the spineless department store manager. There’s also a hilarious uncredited cameo from the marvellous Cloris Leachman as the kid’s barmy grandma.
Bad Santa, then, is not your average heart-warming, kid-friendly, sugar-coated Christmas fluff. It’s often disgusting and frequently foul-mouthed, but don't be put off by this because like other great Christmas films – It’s A Wonderful Life, Scrooge, One Magic Christmas – it’s about redemption and how sometimes one simple act of kindness to an otherwise unrepentant character can provide the catalyst for change.