Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, November 14, 2016

Director Report Card: Terry Zwigoff (2003)

4. Bad Santa

“Bad Santa” is a film of contradictions. It’s a film about Christmas, that most family oriented and kid friendly of holidays, that is also an incredibly filthy comedy. It’s a crowd-pleasing mainstream comedy from a director best known for artistic independent films. It’s a low brow picture that wallows in its vulgarity, co-written by respected filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. This varied background is represented in the three separate versions of the film that exist. Yet maybe variety really is the spice of life. “Bad Santa” would become a sleeper hit, providing a much needed anecdote to the usual schmaltz of the Christmas season.

Willie Soke is a hateful scumbag who attempts to dull the pain of his miserable life with constant booze, sex, and violence. He’s also a mall Santa. Along with his little person partner, Marcus, he’s been riding the same scheme for years. After suffering through another Christmas season, the two rob the department stores while everyone is gone for the holiday. During their latest scheme, Willie has an unexpected encounter. An obese child believes him to actually be Santa Claus. Willie ends up living in the boy’s spacious house where the most unexpected thing happens… He starts to actually enjoy the kid’s company.

The main gimmick behind “Bad Santa” is right there in the title. It’s about a Santa Claus who misbehaves often and with gusto. The film follows that concept as long as it can. “Bad Santa” is maybe the most mean-spirited Christmas movie ever made, this side of “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” The film does not concern itself with the reason for the season, giving, family, or togetherness. In an early scene, Willie urinates while sitting on Santa’s throne. He quickly swears at the kids sitting on his lap. He screams profanity at a kid who tries to get his attention during lunch break. This anti-Christmas tone peaks during a sequence where Willie drunkenly stumbles into a Nativity, violently smashing it. Yet there’s some sort of point to “Bad Santa’s” misanthropy, as the film builds towards an anti-capitalism theme, exposing the greed and needless want that characterizes too many people’s Christmases.

“Bad Santa” seems determined to earn the severity of the adjective in its title. The film has an unerringly vulgar tone. In the very first scene, Willie vomits outside of a bar. The script is filled with a cornucopia of creative curses. Characters spew hateful dialogue peppered with more fucks and shits then you can count. Yet there’s a certain poetry to the profanity, the writers finding inventive ways to twist the vulgarity in clever, unexpected ways. “Bad Santa” also continues Terry Zwigoff’s obsession with deviant sex. Like Robert Crumb, Willie has a fetish for women with fuller hips and buttocks. A particular infamous sequence features him sodomizing a hefty woman in a dressing room. When not drinking, puking, fighting, or Santa Claus-ing, Willie is thinking about porking women or actually porking women. In other words, the movie more then earns its R rating.

“Bad Santa” is undeniably a dark comedy. Coming before pop culture’s current obsession with anti-heroes, Willie Soke is an anti-hero in the classical, Greek sense. He lacks the traditional heroic qualities. He’s an alcoholic. The character is surrounded by booze in nearly every scene. He tosses an glass bottle at a car window. Later, a cascade of empty cans and bottles fall out of his own vehicle when he opens the door. After all, he pisses on himself a lot too. Billy Bob Thornton has no problem playing a character this non-glamorous. Probably best known at the time for appearances in arty dramas like “Sling Blade,” “Monster’s Ball,” or “A Simple Plan,” “Bad Santa” would be the first of Thornton’s many appearances in low brow comedies. Despite Willie being a total scumbag, Thornton finds a humanity under the character’s bullshit. Somehow, he makes the character likable, despite all the terrible shit he does.

Willie’s literal partner in crime is played by Tony Cox. As displayed in various flicks like “Friday” and “Me, Myself and Irene,” Cox has a way with profane dialogue. “Bad Santa” gifts him with some real gems. He frequently insults Willie, informing him that he’s a serial fornicator, an emotional cripple, that his soul is full of dog shit. When arguing with another character, he spins out some especially entertaining and profane responses about the person’s wife. He maintains a straight face and total comedic composure even when delivering the script’s most brutal dialogue. Cox is perfect for the material, in other words.

At the heart of the film is Willie’s relationship with the young boy. Credited as the Kid, though we learn his name is “Thurman Merman” throughout the film, the character is a singularly bizarre creation. He speaks in a generally flat tone, rarely differing in his speech or body language. He constantly questions Willie about the particulars of being Santa Claus, which Thornton responses to with dead pan vulgarity. Merman rattles off bizarre facts about the Talking Walnut, gorillas, or wooden pickles. No wonder the character is constantly bullied by a gang of skateboard punks. He’s a genuine weirdo. Brett Kelly is well cast in the part, if nothing else.

“Bad Santa” doesn’t have time for empty platitudes, being an unerringly cynical flick full of nastiness. Yet when Willie and the Kid become friends, the film earns it. Merman making Willie a gift, and injuring himself in the process, gives the Bad Santa pause. After a spell of angry, drunken shouting, the Kid admits that he knows Willie isn’t Santa… But hopes that they’re friends. It’s genuinely disarming, contrasting against the film’s otherwise prickly edges. By the end, Willie might actually care about another human being. Both lost individuals learn something about self worth. “Bad Santa” actually preaches a Christmas feeling message about lost souls finding reasons to live through selfless acts. By wrapping it in R-rated ribaldry, it makes that message stronger.

A particularly infamous example of the film’s ribald content is the film’s romantic subplot. Willie hooks up with Sue, a Jewish girl with a fetish for Santa Clauses. This is another example of Zwigoff’s interest in paraphilias. However, that story turn serves another purpose. It gives a reason why a beautiful, funny, charming woman like Lauren Graham would ever be interested in a degenerate like Thornton’s Willie. I wish Graham was given more to do. She only has a handful of scenes and almost all of them have her in various states of undress. However, Graham does bring some sweetness to the role. It would be impossible for her not to, as Graham has an irrepressible screen presence. She also leaps towards the film’s explicit elements with vigor.

In addition to its hilarious leads, “Bad Santa” also includes two dynamite performances among the supporting cast. John Ritter, in his final role, plays Bob Chipeska, the manager of the mall Willie is working in. Ritter responses to Thornton’s extremely bad behavior with stunned shock. Instead of going big though, Ritter reins it all the way in, the character often speaking with a whisper. This was a wise decision, a deliberate reaction to the film’s raunchiness, making Ritter the straightest of straight men. Also notable is Bernie Mac, as another official in the mall. Mac gets several scenes to shine. Such as harassing a young shop-lifter or his refusal to change his end of an agreement. Like Ritter, Mac restrains his comedic energy, making a funnier, more controlled character. (Also like Ritter, Mac was gone before his time.)

As a comedy, “Bad Santa” doesn’t get laughs just by tossing four letter words and weird sex at the viewer. There are some inspired weirdness in the movie to, in line with some of “Ghost World’s” more off-beat moments. Outside a bar, Willie is accosted by an unhinged Middle Eastern man who tries to assault him. It’s an inexplicable, hilarious beat that comes and goes without explanation. Herman’s grandmother, played by Cloris Leachman, appears on the edge of death. However, even when other characters are certain she’s dead, she springs back to life, making sandwiches for everybody. Continuing “Ghost World’s” subtle critique of modern pop culture, Leachman’s near-death state is often contrasted with bright, lively television commercials. “Bad Santa” accents its vulgar streak with a likable weirdness, getting different types of laughs from the viewer.

“Bad Santa” shows Terry Zwigoff’s continuous evolution as a filmmaker. Upbeat, traditional Christmas songs, as well as classical music, score the film. This is a deliberate contrast between the film’s coarse content. Zwigoff’s camera is often creative. A shot I especially like follows Willie as he crashes to the floor, in yet another drunken stupor. The film’s use of editing is inspired. At the end, Zwigoff cuts between Marcus cutting down a mannequin with a golf club and Willie cracking a safe. As bawdy as the finished product may be, Zwigoff’s creative direction shows how thoughtful a film “Bad Santa” really is.

“Bad Santa’s” unexpected success would lead to multiple DVD releases. There’s an unrated cut, which was disowned by the director. Zwigoff’s director’s cut is actually several minutes shorter then the theatrically released version. Zwigoff’s preferred version removes a mostly superficial voice over, makes a mostly unnecessary addition of an on-screen murder, slightly changes the ending, and removes a few funny scenes I like. “Bad Santa” would also cause a spat of derivative films with “bad” in the title, that kept this one’s vulgarity but loss its heart. And now, thirteen years later, it’s spawned a dire looking sequel. Through it all, “Bad Santa” has become a good alternative Christmas movie pick. It’s content makes it a nice anecdote to the traditional schmaltz of the holiday while it still follows the spirit of the season, in its own demented way. [Grade: B+]

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