*. There is a Christmas story archetype wherein a nasty fellow — call him Ebenezer Scrooge, or the Grinch — is transformed and redeemed by the holiday spirit. That’s all that’s happening in Bad Santa, as safecracker Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is a scrawny, foul-mouthed alcoholic and incontinent ass-man who pairs up with dwarf assistant Marcus (Tony Cox) to play Santa and one of his elves in shopping mall department stores over the Christmas season, and then later using their position as an in to break into the mall after hours.
*. That’s all there is to it. So give Billy Bob Thornton credit for pulling the part of Bad Santa — “an eating, drinking, shitting, fucking Santy Claus” — off. He’s sleazy, but he sells us on the notion of a man who has truly bottomed out, if not on why any store would hire such an obvious derelict. I think his main draw is that he works cheap, but even so I think most malls have standards. Then again, Lauren Graham’s Sue doesn’t have much in the way of standards either. Or else that’s just one hell of a Santa fetish that’s riding her.
*. Thornton is the funny guy here though, in a movie where the humour mostly consists of hearing Santa drop loads of f-bombs. Tony Cox is just a sidekick. Bernie Mac shows up as a crooked security chief but I didn’t find him funny at all. He’s just here to be dislikeable. And John Ritter, in his last role, is little more than a cameo. So f-bombs away! And crotch shots. There’s one scene where everyone just goes around punching each other in the nuts. And I have to admit, I was laughing out loud. Some days you just need to see a bit of that.
*. This was a time when we were between waves of PC culture, so a lot of the humour would probably be cut today, leaving not much else. There’s a boy who is apparently mentally challenged in some way. There’s an aggressive gay guy who tries to beat Thornton up outside a bar. The bad people are all Black or Asian. And yet none of this struck me as offensive because it’s not mean-spirited like a lot of other “dark” Christmas movies. And the fact is that Santa is such piece of crap he’s basically just white trash anyway.
*. Rest assured though that the Christmas spirit will triumph, and that there will be a positive message at the end about having to stand up for yourself, even if that means administering another crotch shot. In the last twenty years it’s a movie that’s even gone on to become a bit of a holiday classic, even spawning a belated and unsuccessful sequel in 2016.
*. Like most oddities, it couldn’t really be duplicated (though I wasn’t that disappointed with the sequel). Thornton was far from the first, and hardly the most obvious choice for Willie, but he works. Terry Zwigoff’s slightly alt-flavoured approach also paid off unexpectedly. And, as noted, it came out at a time when it could get away with a lot more than it could today. Which is probably the main reason it has held up as well as it has.