Bad Santa

Gen X Review of Bad SantaPublic service announcement: Bad Santa is not a family film. I usually withhold moral warning like this due to my nihilist background, but this is one movie I wouldn’t bring my nephews or nieces to and most of them are in their late-teens and early 20s. Be advised.

Don’t believe the stories. Billy Bob Thornton don’t need to be loved.


Arguably the seediest-looking Hollywood star working today, Thornton has chewed his way through every role put before him. With crude Popeye sex appeal and the desperate look of a half-starved rat, old Billy Bob has played every downtrodden loser and lowlife imaginable. Tom Hanks he isn’t – and thank god for that – because only Thornton could pull off Bad Santa, this season’s surprise comedy.

Bad Santa is a character study of a loser so disgusting and unrepentantly ugly that he gives bad taste a bad name. Willie T. Stokes (Thornton) is a man who isn’t afraid to fart in a crowded elevator or relieve himself while still in official Santa gear. An alcoholic, thief and con man, Stokes and his partner Marcus (Tony Cox) pose as a Santa and elf team in order to infiltrate department stores the day after Christmas, emptying their safes and stealing high-end merchandise.

Christmas comes early to a dirty department store in Phoenix when the pair breeze into town. It looks like any other job until Stokes meets Sue (Lauren Graham), a barmaid with a Santa fetish, and a young child who appears to want more than a feel-good ride on Santa’s lap. The eight-year-old (Brett Kelly) is fat and dull with a strange unblinking honesty that disarms Stokes, but doesn’t necessarily win him over.

When he discovers the boy’s father is in jail, Stokes moves into the home, steals the family car and drinks their supply of vodka and wine.

Stokes is one of the most miserable SOBs ever to grace the silver screen. Stumbling into work drunk, his false beard contains the stringy remains of too many rough nights holding up the bar. “What do you want?” he asks child after child. A new bike! “Oh, that’s a new one! God, kid, just go away!” Stokes comes from a world where nothing was ever given away for free, and no one would be a less convincing Kris Cringle. He snarls his holiday cheer in a voice that sounds like it’s been dragged through the gutter on the way to the bathroom.

He scopes out young girls at the mall, begins his morning with a stiff glass of vodka, and does ugly things with ugly people in their, um, most ugly places.

This isn’t your mother’s Christmas story and if you’re waiting for the classic redemption scene, you will be disappointed. Bad Santa is one of the most uncompromisingly dark comedies ever made, and the film’s beauty is the way it’s delivered: Cold, hard and without any sweeteners. Dementia of this level is unusual, because most filmmakers usually don’t have the nerve to deliver it deadpan, preferring to spice things up with irony or smug narrative devices.

Bad Santa is raw in the tradition of the best dirty joke you’ve heard, disarmingly bad, so raunchy that almost every line spoken elicits laughs. When Marcus tells Stokes “every single thing about you is ugly,” we agree (and god help the man who identifies with this scumworm), but the movie doesn’t make us feel warm and tingly at his expense. The world is seriously screwed up and Stokes is as much a symptom as a disease.

It’s difficult to know which is uglier, Stokes or the commercialization of Christmas that has led to this Santa assembly line where parents feed their kids to strangers just to get a shot of them for the family album. In the most superficial display of holiday cheer, it’s only the ritual that’s important and kids are taught to want rather than give. They sit on Stokes’ lap expecting to be given anything they want, blissfully unaware that another Bad Santa is being born in the poor part of town.

The entire cast is good, but Billy Bob is devastatingly funny. Stokes knows that he’s disgusting, but he’s unable to control himself or find a moral reason to behave differently, and Thornton doesn’t pull any punches in a role that would have other actors scurrying for some dramatic technique to insulate themselves from their performance. This is the comedic equivalent to James Mason’s pedophilic dandy Humbert Humbert in Kubric’s Lolita.

Billy Bob Thornton is quickly becoming one of the gutsiest actors this side of Steve McQueen. Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters can say what they want: This guy has got jingle balls of steel.


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