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The feel-bad hit of the winter
on June 16, 2004
For those of us who can't quite get into the Christmas spirit, "Bad Santa" is a massive preemptive strike against all of the insufferable sentimentality we're going to be subjected to a few months from now. This movie is every bit as entertaining and funny as "School Of Rock," but where "School Of Rock" succeeded through the overwhelming weight of its good intentions, "Bad Santa" (its moderately heartwarming ending notwithstanding) is all about bad intentions. This movie, especially in its powerhouse first half, displays such a commitment to mean-spiritedness that you can't help but love it.
Billy Bob Thornton's safe-cracking department-store Santa Willie is the epitome of ugliness, all the more so because he commits much of his mayhem in his work outfit. Early on we see him getting drunk and throwing up in an alley, and from there he remains in the gutter for much of the movie. He chain smokes, he wets himself in his chair, he fornicates in a dressing room, and above all, he swears. I don't find profanity inherently funny, but Thornton's acid tongue manages to turn four-letter words into weapons of unimaginable destructive power. More than anything I've seen since the "South Park" movie, "Bad Santa" manages to elevate nasty language into an art form.
Even in its moments of humanity, the movie doesn't aim too high. Willie does have a love interest, but not quite in the conventional sense: intead, it's a young bar waitress with a Santa fetish who demands that Willie wear his stocking cap during coupling. Willie also finds some meaning in his life by striking up an offbeat friendship with a fat, bullied kid named Thurman, a bond that manifests itself in one unforgettable scene when Willie beats the living hell out of the teen skateboarder who gave Thurman a black eye.
Even though it's Thornton's show, "Bad Santa" also benefits from a top-notch supporting cast. In his last film role, the late John Ritter is the picture of ineffectualism as the mall manager; Bernie Mac is admirably slimy as the self-interested security chief; and the three-foot-tall Tony Cox belies his small size with a scene-stealing performance as Willie's "elf" and partner in crime.
"Bad Santa" doesn't have an enormous level of plot development, but then it doesn't really need much. What's really important is the way the movie's cynicism slices and dices the sugary "cheer" (which is often cynical itself) that typically accompanies the holiday season. Christmas isn't all about irritating songs and people rioting in department stores over cheap presents, and we all owe a debt to "Bad Santa" for dumping a little snow on the parade.