Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 16, 2004)
Usually studios wait until the holiday season to release Christmas movies on DVD. Witness the debuts of The Grinch and Santa Clause 2, both of which failed to appear on DVD until almost a year after their theatrical appearances. Elf will soon follow this trend as well.
On the other hand, 2003’s Bad Santa followed a more traditional DVD release pattern, as it hit the shelves about seven months after its initial theatrical run. Despite the film’s connection to Christmas, obviously the suits don’t think it will attract an audience only during that season.
And they’re probably right, for Santa presents a much darker and more cynically comedic look at that time of the year. We meet Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), a bitter, drunken ne’er-do-well who works as a department store Santa. He comes as a package with elf assistant Marcus (Tony Cox), but it turns out they don’t do the gig just for the usual pay. They use their status to case and rob the store after hours, and we also see that Marcus’ girlfriend Lois (Lauren Tom) functions as part of the racket. We soon learn that they make this a yearly concern and rob a different spot every Christmas.
Determined to go clean, Willie uses the loot to move to Miami. He wants to quit boozing and open a bar, but he fails and continues to be a drunken crook. As Christmas approaches, Marcus calls and they go back into the game. They go to work in Arizona where they’re hired by Bob Chipeska (John Ritter) at Saguaro Square Mall. The foul-mouthed Willie upsets Bob when he makes a comment about his “fuckstick”, and Bob soon brings his concerns to mall security chief Gin(Bernie Mac). It doesn’t help when Bob catches Willie as he bangs a heavy woman in a dressing room.
Tubby, nerdy eight-year-old Thurman (Brett Kelly) goes to see Santa at the mall. Despite Willie’s coarse behavior, Thurman waits for Santa after the mall closes and follows him. Willie meets Sue (Lauren Graham), a bartender with a Santa fetish, and they do the nasty in a car.
After she splits, a weirdo assaults Willie in the parking lot and Thurman helps rescue him. Willie gives the boy a ride home and learns that the kid’s dad is allegedly gone for the long-term on a mountain-climbing adventure. Thurman lives only with his elderly and out of it grandma (Cloris Leachman). Willie boldly robs the place with the innocent Thurman’s unknowing approval.
After the dressing room incident, Bob tries to fire Willie and Marcus, but they use political correctness related to the latter’s racial and physical attributes to keep their jobs. Nonetheless, Bob goes to Gin to get the store detective to dig up some dirt on Willie so he can can him.
As part of this, Gin roots through Willie’s motel room, so our Santa bails and decides to move in with Thurman and Grandma. We soon learn that Thurman’s dad (Ethan Phillips) is actually in jail for embezzlement, which we find out when Gin learns that Willie’s using the family home.
From there the movie follows various elements. We see the development of the relationship between Willie and Thurman, and we also watch what happens with the planned robbery. We also discover what Gin does with his information and how he deals with Willie.
Bad Santa occasionally runs the risk of turning into something crass just for the sake of offensiveness. The movie clearly falls far outside the realm of political correctness, especially via the visions of such a scummy Santa. The film easily could have turned into nothing more than sight gags connected to the disconnect between Santa and sin, and indeed, it occasionally falls back on those bits.
However, the movie walks a fine line between darkness and nastiness that make sense and knee-jerk crudeness, and it manages to stay on the right side of that line. What makes Santa different than something tacky and lame like Road Trip or Saving Silverman is that it doesn’t attempt laughs based solely on nasty material; it integrates some cleverness and spark into the comedy and doesn’t simply hope that we’ll chortle at the baseness of the situations. Granted, I can’t say that the sight of a dwarf punching a little kid in the nuts equals high comedy, but it doesn’t feel especially gratuitous, and as played out in the movie, it’s funny.
I worried somewhat that Santa would ultimately turn into something sappy and sentimental via the relationship between Willie and Thurman, and it nearly gets to that level. However, it manages to avoid treacle the vast majority of the time. It helps that Willie never stops being disgusting. He warms up to the kid and demonstrates his affection for him, but he never turns into anything other than a rough dude. The movie somewhat cops out on a potentially very dark ending, but it maintains internal consistency and remains pretty crude.
A lot of the success of Santa connects to the actors, especially Thornton. He displays exceedingly little ego as Willie and totally fills the part. Willie doesn’t come across like a slick actor playing at degradation; Thornton lends the character a broadly comic edge but still makes him believably crass and low. When Willie discusses suicidal ideation, we buy it, and the role gets a dark side that someone else might skip. Santa remains a broadly comic farce for the most part, but a certain edginess infuses it, largely thanks to Thornton.
The other actors get less to do, especially Graham. Her role feels more like a generic tacked-on love interest than an integral part of the story, and she comes and goes at random. Kelly does nicely as Thurman, partially because he gets to have his cake and eat it too. The role allows him to parody the innocent, naïve true believer, as Thurman obsesses over Santa, but it also provides some emotional depth and lets us see his development without too much sentimentality.
Bad Santa does lose some steam toward the end. The developing relationship between Thurman and Willie gives the movie a bit of depth, but I’m still not sure that’s appropriate; it might work better if it kept Willie totally without redeeming characteristics. Still, it provides lots of laughs and maintains a nasty attitude from start to finish.
Note that this DVD provides an unrated cut of Bad Santa. Called Badder Santa on the cover, this one adds about seven minutes of footage not found in the “R”-rated theatrical version. I never saw Santa before the DVD arrived, so I can’t state what extra footage appeared. However, nothing about it screams out that it couldn’t make the theatrical version. I didn’t detect anything that seemed particularly naughty on its own. Perhaps it was simply the volume of profanity and crude content that forced the MPAA to require cuts to get it down to an “R”.