Bad Santa movie review: none more black

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(Best of 2003)

I love Yuletide — it’s my favorite time of year. It’s unfortunate that the Christians have coopted a perfectly lovely celebration of the winter solstice, but they’re not the first to do so and they likely won’t be the last, and there’s no one to say I can’t pick and choose which traditions to recognize and which to ignore. So I light candles to keep the dark at bay and bring evergreens in the house to remind me of warmer, greener days and celebrate with family and friends the return of the sun. I love the lights and the parties and the presents and the cold crisp air and the cozy long nights.

But all in its time and in its place. The Hallmark stores and the drugstores have had Christmas merchandise on the shelves since before Halloween. Starbucks hauled out the Christmas cups in October. The Radio City Christmas Show — ads for which, on buses and bus shelters and phone kiosks and billboards and TV and radio, there is no escaping in New York — opened in the first week of November. There’s a radio station here in NYC that starting playing Christmas music in the middle of November — the 13th is when I noticed it, but it could have been going on before that. And I’m not talking about the occasional “Jingle Bells” or “Winter Wonderland” — this station is playing Christmas music 24/7. It makes me turn prematurely into one of those old cranks who yell at the TV and radio. I don’t want to know from Christmas until the day after Thanksgiving.

So, when I attended a screening on November 14, I was already primed for Bad Santa, the meanest, curmudgeonliest, blackest holiday movie I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen most of ’em. It’s like, How much more black could it be? And the answer is None, none more black. I haven’t laughed at a film this hard all year, and maybe not last year, either. And much of that laughter sprung from shock: I spent half the film saying to myself, “Holy crap, I can’t believe they did that!” and “They did not just do that!” It’s hard to be shocking in the era of the Farrelly Brothers, but Bad Santa is shocking partly because it’s so unrepentant and unapologetic. There’s no attempt to infuse the film with heart or soul or sweetness or light. Bad Santa unrelentingly twisted. And that’s just wonderful.

The Coen Brothers (Intolerable Cruelty, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) conceived of this holiday oddity — John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (Cats & Dogs) wrote the script — and here we see the difference between the juvenile crudity that characterizes too many movies today and, if it’s not much of a contradiction in terms, the possibility of a grown-up crudity, one that doesn’t celebrate bodily fluids and bodily functions so much as recognize them as inconvenient and messy facts of life. And then in the hands of director Terry Zwigoff — who made the delightfully antisocial Ghost World — and Billy Bob Thornton — who throws all caution to the wind as a bitter, drunken, misanthropic, sex-addicted department-store Santa/thief — this becomes a deliciously wicked and defiantly politically incorrect Yuletide satire the likes of which few filmmakers would dare, aching with disdain for commercialized merriment and rampant consumerism.

Thornton’s (Love Actually, Levity) Willie Soke makes Macy’s soused Santa, the one Kris Kringle has to fill in for in Miracle on 34th Street, look like the greenest amateur. The tiny tots who line up to sit on his lap tolerate all the abuse he doles out — and the B.O. he surely must be carrying around with him, considering his lax standards of personal care — to tell him what their avaricious little hearts desire. They have eyes all aglow, all right: with greed. He can’t stand the little brats, and you can’t blame him. He does the gig — in a different city every year — merely to be in place to pull an inside-job heist on Christmas Eve, when store safes are bursting with the only kind of holiday green he’s interested in. Plus it gives his “elf” sidekick, Marcus (Tony Cox: The Fantasticks), time to do some last-minute “shopping,” after the crowds have gone home, for his wife/partner-in-crime, who’s just as greedy as the little tykes who sit on Willie’s lap.

Marcus ain’t such a bad guy, but, as he points out to Willie, “Everything about you is ugly!” And yet he’s got Santa groupies in Sue (Lauren Graham: Sweet November, One True Thing), who has a perverse interest in red suits, and the weird, unnamed little kid (Brett Kelly), who appears to think Willie really is the jolly old elf. And don’t think Willie doesn’t milk their pathetic attraction to him for all its worth. It’d be sad, how desperate Sue and the kid are for the little bit of distracted attention Willie gives them, that this ugly-in-all-ways man is all they can find to fill the yawning voids in their lives, except that they’re not sad themselves: the kid especially has created a little cloud of fantasy around himself to protect him from reality. Unlike with, say, a Farrelly Brothers comedy, there’s a certain dignity and integrity even these objects of comedy retain. And if any of them get anything like redemption or resolution for their very odd issues, it certainly isn’t coated with holiday sap. Nope: it comes, if it can be said to come at all, with the bitter sting of a winter wind. It’s downright bracing.

No sugar plums. No angels. No heartwarming anything. And absolutely no one learns the True Meaning of Christmas. It’s the anti–It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s the It’s a Miserable Fucking Goddamn Life, and Ain’t It Grand. This is the perfect tonic for an overdose of Holiday Cheer(TM). Do not bring the children.

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