Bad Santa

Most of us have probably felt the urge from time to time to give Santa Claus with all his relentless jollity a good kick in the pants, but there ought to be some happy medium between the ghastly sentimentality and consumerism of the American Christmas and the appalling debunking it is subjected to in Terry Zwigoff’s loathsomely bad and cynical Bad Santa. Zwigoff, who showed a real if quirky talent in Crumb and Ghost World, here tries something that one assumes is meant to be more commercial but that shows, in my view, a disastrous lack of touch and taste when it comes to comedy.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie Soke, a mall-Santa who works as a team with a dwarf, called Marcus (Tony Cox), who dresses up in an elf suit. But Willie is a safe-cracker, and regularly makes off with the Christmas-eve takings on the last night of his annual employment. Having done so, he hopes to have enough to pass the following year in an alcoholic haze — until it is time to don the Santa suit again in another community. True to his name, Willie is an offensive, nasty, foul-mouthed drunk who appears to take no precautions to safeguard his job, even by making an effort to pretend to be jolly and accommodating to the kids who come sit on his knee. In fact he regularly insults them and curses in front of them and frequently comes to work drunk. Even Marcus describes him as “an emotional cripple. Your soul is dog s***, every single f***ing thing about you is ugly.”

This is an understatement. When the mall manager at his latest gig, Bob Chipeska, played by the late John Ritter, takes offense and fires him, Willie and Marcus terrify him into taking them back by threatening him with protest from the politically correct advocates of racial minorities and handicapped people. When he yields, Willie says contemptuously: “You’re pathetic.” Yet Bob still allows this patently unsuitable Santa and his “elf” to continue in his job, though the former subsequently arrives at it falling down drunk. Apparently no parents protest. Meanwhile, Chipeska’s attempt to delve into Willie’s criminal past with the help of the store detective (Bernie Mac) only results in the latter’s blackmailing him for a cut of the swag.

There are no prizes for predicting that there has to be an adorable child whom Willie will learn to care for and who will be his redemption, but this kid, played by Brett Kelly, is so clueless that he ends up becoming Willie’s science project rather than the other way around. Willie not only teaches him to stop believing in Santa but also provides instruction in sex — Willie finds an improbably pretty girl, played by Lauren Graham, who has a “thing” for Santa Claus — and getting what he wants and how to defend himself against bullies by kneeing them in the groin and above all in how to curse. Doubtless drinking and safe-cracking will be the next things on the curriculum.

It is interesting that the only scrap of innocence this child is allowed to retain is the story that his father, in prison for embezzlement, is off exploring mountains. Willie proves a sentimentalist on this point if on no other. Otherwise the entire comic idea of the film seems to consist of nothing but the juxtaposition of one unusually innocent child and a foul-mouthed, drunken, brutish criminal in a Santa Claus costume with no concern for the protection of his innocence. I saw this film on the same day that it was announced that Michael Jackson had been arrested on a charge of child molestation. Movies like this one suggest the underlying reason why, if he is guilty, he could have got away with it for so long. Interfering with childish innocence is Hollywood’s stock-in-trade.

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