Monday, December 23, 2013

Movie Review: Bad Santa

Directed by Terry Zwigoff. 2003.

Bad Santa is a refreshing reactionary Christmas movie. Instead of setting in us the typical frosty New England milieu, Zwigoff tosses us into the desert of the Midwest. Instead of setting the scene around family, hearth, and home, the lives of his characters revolve around a shopping mall. In place of cliche Christmas tidings we get profanity-laced tirades. Finally, rather than show us a good man who triumphs in the exultation of the Christmas spirit, we get a nasty misanthrope who repels us with his every boozy breath. In this respect Bad Santa is a riff on A Christmas Carol, but whereas Dickens' tale reaches its moment of recognition by presenting to its hero his mistakes and baleful demise, the antihero of Bad Santa is transformed by the love of others unfolding in the present.

Billy Bob Thornton is Willie, the drunken, lecherous, thieving, cussing, safe cracker who sneers at any hint of kindness or good nature and, of course, plays Santa Claus at the mall. Thornton's performance here was inspired enough to earn cheap encores in the Bad News Bears and Mr. Woodcock, but there really is something to Willie. He loathes everything he lacks, namely all of the bourgeoisie pleasantries and kindness which surround him at Christmas time. More importantly, he had a lousy childhood and can't find it within himself to strive for anything better than he knows. Because he hates what he lacks as inauthentic, he justifies and revels in his disgusting self. Add to this character Willie's predilections, inspired cussing, and crackling indifference to social mores, and then finally mix in that strange, Zwigoffian tone, and you have one bad and memorable Santa.

Bad Santa also has a rich bag of foils for the holidays, though. Willie's partner, Marcus, tolerates his shenanigans because Willie is the other half of their scheme. Every Christmas they play Santa and elf at a mall and on Christmas when everyone goes home, Marcus disables the alarm and Willie cracks the safe. The duo parts ways with their loot and meet up at a new mall the following year. Yet while Marcus takes ribbing for his height, he's not just there for cheap laughs. There's a dark heart to his character, for while Willie steals out of indifference to his life, Marcus is genuinely greedy. He likes life, or its luxuries, so much that he's willing to destroy some of it to gain for himself. Willie's at least consistent in hating what he's tearing down. There's a similar contrast within Willie's other foil, mall guard Gin, played by the late Bernie Mac. He's nominally on the side of the mall and law and order, preaching about justice to the mall's delinquents, but when he catches wind of the pair's Christmas scheme, the store dick wants a piece of the action, a piece he wins in a side-splitting scene of bargaining with Marcus. Willie may be a criminal and reprobate, but he's decent enough to be unhappy whereas Marcus and the store dick relish in their natures.

Willie's redemption comes in the form of Thurman Merman, whom Willie calls with increasing affection, Kid. Thurman's a miserable, friendless boy and raised by his senile grandmother he doesn't have any parents to guide him either. The Kid latches onto Willie, naturally, when "Santa" breaks into his house. When Willie realizes Thurman's place is a free safe-house for the season, he shacks up with Kid and Grandma. As he gradually realizes how miserable Thurman is, Willie starts to tutor him in not being quite such a wuss. Finally, when Willie in full Santa regalia goes flips out in rage on a bunch of punks who were bullying Thurman, we realize he's turned a corner and started to live for someone else. Similarly we find Sue, (Lauren Graham) a bartender and fling of Willie's who moves in with the increasingly motley crew of Grandma's House. She might seem a simple love interest or sexpot for spicing up the movie, but she has depth and significance: Sue has confessed kink for Santa because she was raised without Christmas. Like Thurman, and opposite Willie, she's reaching out for, and overcompensating for, what she lacked as a child.

If you can't see the makings of a happy ending you don't know the genre, and if you think it'll be your vanilla conclusion then you don't know Terry Zwigoff. Bad Santa's thoughtful characters and development are spiced up by Zwigoff's inimitable sense for humor in incongruity and the finale is no exception. Even as Willie finds others to live for and the three make a new and wacky family, it's amidst clever montages (with some smart and subversive use of classical pieces), gunfights, profanity, one hilariously flipped bird, and a bloody wooden pickle. Merry Christmas.

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