I was 19 going 20 when Bad Santa hit DVD, several months after a bootleg copy made the rounds among my extended family back in the days of tangible film piracy. Twenty years later, I still stubbornly watch that same DVD with “interactive menus”, despite HD streams at my fingertips, and with each viewing my level of enjoyment has increased to mentally questionable levels.
Just to unwrap for those you haven’t seen the adult yuletide flick, Billy Bob Thornton stars as an alcoholic, serial fornicator and perpetual loser, Willie Soke, who takes up seasonal employment as a shopping mall Santa Claus with a dwarf partner, Marcus (Tony Cox), as his assisting elf. However, this double act is really a means of robbing the various department stores blind on Christmas Eve, with enough loot to see them through the following year; but Willie turns a corner after he beats the shit out of some kids.
What I click with most in Bad Santa is the comedic nuance much of which comes from co-stars, John Ritter and Bernie Mac as the mall manager and detective, respectively. Ritter sadly passed away before filming was completed on the film, but his few scenes as the nervous Nancy playing off Willie’s brash demeanour are true testament to his talent, whereas, Mac kills me every time with his eccentric and exaggerated sense of self, whether it be coughing up phlegm while devouring a mandarin orange or his odd vernacular. I feel Thornton’s dark performance comes from a very real place, which is a little sad if you think about it, but his brazen and nonchalant attitude and complete lack of filter are off the charts.
Many criticise Bad Santa as being mean-spirited due to its belligerent protagonist, but I disagree. There are abrasive characters, no question, but the film wholeheartedly embraces the Christmas spirit in almost every scene and chooses the innocent yet socially stunted, Thurman Merman, as a sort of symbol of blind childhood faith in magic and Santa Claus.
After all these years, my main take on Bad Santa is that it’s okay to love and loathe the holiday season. While I dig the vibes, decorations, and the joys of Christmases long, long ago; I resent being told by retailers when to do my shopping in October and the mob mentality of consumers. Willie Soke in many ways personifies that rotten core of commercialism, but without a doubt, he’s my favourite Christmas anti-hero. Everyone else is prick’s fix.
(2003, directors: Terry Zwigoff)