There are some films which will forever embody the spirit of Christmas, films which communicate directly the goodness, charity and common humanity we are all, in our heart of hearts, capable of. Films like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and any of a raft of ‘A Christmas Carol’ adaptations.
Then there’s ‘Bad Santa’.
For anyone unacquainted with (or should I say untainted by) this slab of seasonal cynicism, the plot centres around veteran safe-cracker Willie Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton), who spends one month out of the year dressed as a department store Santa while he and his elf-disguised midget partner Marcus (Tony Cox) case the joint preparatory to a Christmas Eve heist.
Willie hates Christmas. He hates kids. Particularly the ones that sneeze chocolate over him or pull his beard off. He boozes on the job. He eyes up women. Prissy store manager Bob (John Ritter, in his last film role) catches him engaging in rigorous intercourse with a portly shopper in the women’s dressing rooms. His romantic homily to the lady in question: “Oh yeah, baby, you ain’t gonna shit right for a month.”
Bob takes his concerns to hard-talking store detective Gin (Bernie Mac), who has Willie surveilled. Worried that the cops are targeting him, Willie moves into the home of Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), an overweight and much bullied kid left in the care of his less-than-compos-mentos grandmother while his father serves a jail sentence for white collar crime.
Thurman’s beguilingly naïve fascination with Santa (he spends most of the film plaguing Willie with questions about the North Pole, reindeer and why his beard is fake*), is mirrored by Willie’s budding relationship with free-living barmaid Sue (Lauren Graham), whose attraction to him is explained by her self-confessed Santa fetish (“fuck me Santa, fuck me Santa, fuck me Santa” is high on the list of the film’s many jaw-droppingly politically incorrect lines).
Willie’s drinking, professional disenfranchisement and tendency to self-loathing come to a head when his and Marcus’s scam is uncovered by Gin, who demands fifty percent of their haul. Willie borrows Thurman’s father’s car and runs a hosepipe through the window. On the verge of succumbing to asphyxia, he is interrupted by Thurman, sporting an ugly black eye. Willie squints at him. “Who did this?” Cut immediately to Willie, dressed in Santa outfit, repeatedly punching Thurman’s chief tormentor in the face as ‘March of the Toreadors’ rings out triumphantly on the soundtrack**. Another immediate cut: Willie having a heart-to-heart with Marcus: “I feel like I’ve turned a corner. I beat the shit out of some kid today, but I did it for a reason. I feel my life has a purpose.”
Black humour is often the most effective: it shocks you into laughing. This sequence, which raises the bar beyond every bad taste, censor-baiting, downright offensive moment that has come before, is just as swiftly superseded by Willie and Marcus’s attempts to toughen Thurman up by teaching him the rudiments of boxing. Here the humour derives from a foul-mouthed drunkard, a midget and an eight-year-old kid punching each other in the balls ... repeatedly. Like so much of ‘Bad Santa’, it shouldn’t be funny. Really. By any right-thinking, socially-responsible standards, it shouldn’t be funny.
Consider these random samplings of dialogue:
Thurman tells Willie he wishes he could have a pink elephant for Christmas. Willie: “Wish in one hand, shit in the other, see which fills up first.”
Willie and Marcus come across a safe that is considered nigh on uncrackable. Willie cites the case of an expert cracker he once did time with who couldn’t access it. Willie: “They said he could get into anything. Even Margaret Thatcher’s pussy.” Marcus: “And that’s a good thing?”
Willie approached by a mother and child whilst stuffing his face in the department store cafetia. “Why don’t you go tell Santa what you want for Christmas?” the mother urges. “I’m on my fucking lunch break! Jesus Christ!” Willie expostulates, half-masticated food spewing from his mouth.
Consider these random images:
Willie slumped drunk in Santa’s grotto, bottle in hand, pissing himself.
Willie walking to work, again in full Santa uniform, finishing off a bottle of vodka at eight o’clock in the morning and hurling the empty receptacle at the windscreen of a nearby Mercedes.
The LAPD putting eight bullets in Willie’s/Santa’s back as he tries to deliver Thurman’s Christmas presents, the neighbour children screaming and crying at the sight.
Yup, Terry Zwigoff’s film is wrong on every conceivable level. Its hero is a drunkard, a thief and a vulgarian. There’s more swearing than ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Scarface’ and ‘Reservoir Dogs’ put together. There isn’t the vaguest trace element of a moral imperative anywhere.
And yet it’s the funniest and – in the final analysis – most perversely poignant Christmas movie I’ve ever seen. To slightly misquote Tiny Tim, “God help us, one and all.”
* Willie: “My hair fell out ’cause I went with a woman who wasn’t clean.” Thurman: “Mrs Santa?” Willie: “No, Mrs Santa’s sister.”
** ‘Bad Santa’ boasts the best use of classical music since ‘Battle Royale’ – the safe-cracking scene, perfectly edited to the clanging percussion of the ‘Anvil Chorus’, is a standout.