Bad Santa

Bad Santa has a lot of things going against it. It is a Dimension (i.e. Miramax) film with no website, and a Christmas story about a foul-mouthed, alcoholic Santa Claus. It doesn't sound that interesting. Yet, this strange juxtaposition between the classic image of a jolly Saint Nick and the film's portrayal of a horny, dirty bastard is actually funnier than one would think. There has been a lot of controversy about the portrayal, and how it may hurt children's images of Santa, but if you're a parent and are taking them to see this R rated movie, then you have other things to worry about. This is not a film for kids. It is aimed squarely at adults, and the more cynical the better.

Willie (Billy Bob Thornton, Love Actually, Intolerable Cruelty) does dress up as Santa, but it's mainly to rob the department store he works in. His accomplice, Marcus (Tony Cox, The Fantasticks, Me, Myself, and Irene), an African-American dwarf, travel to a different city every year. If somebody threatens to fire them, Marcus screams discrimination. Marcus actually tries to play the part, Willie could care less. He shows up to work drunk and curses at children. This year, they are in Arizona. A fat kid (Brett Kelly, Out Cold, Kill Me Later) takes a liking to Santa, and no matter how hard Willie tries, he cannot shake him. Eventually, Willie realizes the kid lives at home alone with his zone out Grandmother (Cloris Leachman, Alex and Emma, Manna From Heaven) and their house is a perfect place to live in style for free. He even brings over his semi-girlfriend Sue (Lauren Graham, Sweet November, The Third Wheel), a bartender with a Santa fetish.

As Christmas gets closer, Willie and Marcus scope out the department store. The manager (John Ritter, Man of the Year, Tadpole) and security officer (Bernie Mac, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Head of State) are suspicious, but cannot seem to prove anything. Meanwhile, inexplicably, Willie and the kid begin to bond. It's probably because the kid is relentless in his random questioning and looks pathetic enough to break through Willie's callous exterior to evoke some pity. Eventually, much to his own chagrin, Willie becomes something of a father figure to the kid, but he still manages to constantly let him down.

The story was originally conceived by Joel and Ethan Coen (Intolerable Cruelty, The Man Who Wasn't There) and their usual assortment of strange characters and wacky situations are still present. It would be interesting to see what they would have done, but the screenplay was written by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (Cats & Dogs). Most surprising is that Bad Santa was directed by Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World, Crumb), in what is probably his most mainstream effort yet. He still treats his weird characters with sympathy instead of mocking them, yet his talent for showing the humanity in this weirdness is gone. Since this is a Christmas movie, albeit one with much more cussing than usual, there is a moral, and that's where Bad Santa falters. It tries to make everything nice so people can smile at the end, when it should be going in the opposite direction. As the end comes near, the characters begin to restrain themselves in order to make the audience want to like them more. In this sense, it also becomes alarmingly predictable. The Christmas spirit wins in the end, even though people are secretly hoping it will not.

Haro Rates It: Okay.
1 hour, 33 minutes, Rated R for pervasive language, strong sexual content, and some violence.

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