Bad(der) Santa (2003) Movie Review

“Bad Santa” probably marks the first time a major Hollywood film was released on DVD with the alternate version as the primary version, and the regular version (i.e. the one shown in theaters) making up the “oh by the way, you might also want to get this” alternate version. And if that last sentence makes any sense to you, then you’ve been visiting for way too long.

“Bad Santa” stars Billy Bob Thornton (“Monster’s Ball”) as Willie, the titular not-so Jolly gift giver, who is every bit as rude, crude, and vulgar as you’d expect a career low-life ex-convict to be. Willie’s scam has him playing a mall Santa, with his dwarf-in-crime partner Marcus (Tony Cox) playing his “elf” helper. The duo targets a mall every season, waiting until the right time to rob the place. It appears that the only reason Marcus puts up with Willie’s exasperating faults is because the other criminal is an impressive safecracker — that is, when he’s not drunk.

As the film opens, the duo has cleaned out yet another mall, only to part company until next Christmas, when they can ply their scam all over again. The next year finds the duo in Phoenix, where they encounter unexpected obstacles in a mall administrator played by John Ritter and comedian Bernie Mac as the mall’s head of security. As the criminals plot their crime, they are forced to work the Santa lines, where Willie meets a lonely fat kid (Brett Kelly) whose persistent appearance in Willie’s life makes him question the road he’s taken. Also, he falls in lust with Sue (Lauren Graham), a happy-go-lucky bartender with a Santa fetish.

Directed by Terry Zwigoff (“Ghost World”), “Bad Santa” is pretty damn funny. There’s rarely a dull minute and the film makes use of every single second of its 90-plus minute running time to lob gag after gag at the audience. More often than not the jokes are all winners, with enough crude bathroom humor and offscreen sex to make it deservedly not for anyone under 17. As low-life Willie, Billy Bob Thornton curses his way through the movie, dropping the “F” and “S” bombs as if he’s afraid he might die if he stops using them once every other word. Seriously folks, this is one vulgar movie.

Although obviously made for adults, I don’t doubt even some adults may find “Bad Santa” to be offensive, especially its endless stream of vulgar language around and directed at the film’s young cast, especially Brett Kelly. Speaking of which, has there ever been a more adorable kid than Kelly? Somewhat pitiful but all loveable, the unnamed Kid’s persistent nature and his endless questions on the most minor points are what constitute the heart and soul of “Bad Santa”. It’s not going overboard to praise the work of young Kelly, whose understated and smart performance rings true, even if the situations he finds himself in can only exist in movies.

Aside from its generous amount of sleaze, “Bad Santa” will also be known as the last movie where the late John Ritter appears in. Perhaps owing to Ritter’s sudden death, it’s strange to note that Ritter’s character abruptly disappears from the movie at around the midway point. Missing from the entire second half, Ritter is dearly missed as the strangely jittery Bob Chipeska. Less successful is Bernie Mac, whose character is tasked with investigating the mall’s drunken Santa. Mac’s lack of impact, despite a Third Act twist, is probably owed to his lack of screentime.

As a comedy, “Bad Santa” has all the bases covered. Adult-themed gags, the lowest common denominator bathroom humor, and of course the complete annihilation of a great Western icon. Surprisingly, “Santa” also works as a family film. Granted, one isn’t used to seeing an adult use an endless string of four-letter words at a kid in your average family fare, but when all is said and done you can’t deny that “Bad Santa” has, under all its vulgarity and crass sexual gags, its heart in the right place. And the fact that it’s downright hilarious doesn’t hurt either.

It’s no surprise that the man who made all this work is Terry Zwigoff, last responsible for the smart and insightful coming of age comedy/drama “Ghost World”. Like that other film, Zwigoff has the tone just right in “Bad Santa”, coaxing an excellent performance out of young Brett Kelly along the way. Alas, one would have liked to see more of the delightful Lauren Graham, who seems to only appear every now and then to plug up loose plot points. Then again, a little bit of Lauren Graham is better than no Lauren Graham, so I suppose one shouldn’t really complain.

Terry Zwigoff (director) / Glenn Ficarra, John Requa (screenplay)
CAST: Billy Bob Thornton …. Willie
Tony Cox …. Marcus
Brett Kelly …. The Kid
Lauren Graham …. Sue
Lauren Tom …. Lois
Bernie Mac …. Gin
John Ritter …. Bob Chipeska

Buy Bad(der) Santa on DVD