In the decade since it has been released, Terry Zwigoff’s profane, raunchy comedy Bad Santa has become the seasonal favorite for people who are fed up with Christmas. To those who find December’s forced merriment smothering and/or grating, the film is a bracing tonic: a movie that wickedly mocks everything about the holiday.
Which is ironic because Bad Santa is, ultimately, every bit as sentimental and uplifting as most other Christmas fare. It just manages to hide it really well beneath a constant stream of profanity and off-color jokes. But the holiday sentiment is in there and it is what makes the film work.
Most holiday film classics actually traffic in despair and misanthropy. There are basically two varieties. The first are the ones where twisted, bitter souls who despise the holiday nevertheless have a change of heart because of it. (Think Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge or Dr. Seuss’s Grinch.)
The second variety involve decent people driven to cynicism or despair but whose broken spirits are healed by the holiday (Think Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, whose angel prevents him from committing suicide, or Peanuts’ Charlie Brown, who mopes his way through his Christmas special.)
All of these films acknowledge — indeed, their plots are based around — the fact that the holiday can be a depressing, stressful, or simply annoying time for people. There is nothing worse than being told to look and act happy when you aren’t feeling it.
That is the living hell that Willie, the dissolute thief played by Billy Bob Thornton, finds himself in Bad Santa. Along with his midget partner Marcus (Tony Cox), they take jobs as a department store Santa and his elf every year. It’s a profitable scam: they take the time to case the joint and, on Christmas Eve, Willie cracks the safe while Marcus loots the merchandise.
The downside is that Willie has to pretend to be the jolly old elf until that night and his heart just isn’t in it. Every carol, every ornament, every “merry Christmas!” are like fingernails on a blackboard to him.
“If I’d known I was gonna have to put up with screaming brats pissing on my lap for 30 days out of the year, I would have killed myself a long time ago. Come to think of it, I still might,” he says in the film’s opening monologue.
By the time our thieves arrive at their latest target in Arizona, Willie’s hatred of his life has pushed him to become even more self-destructive. He regularly drinks himself into a stupor, curses in front of children and parents, and even gets caught in the act in a store dressing-room with a “plus-sized” woman.
It is this stuff that audiences remember and love from the film — and understandably so. You certainly don’t see it in many other holiday favorites. I suspect a lot of people would like to be vent as Willie does over the holidays and that’s why they are drawn to the character.
But Willie’s antics give him precious little satisfaction. Instead, they are driven by his self-loathing. As he explains in the prologue, his father was a lowlife crook too — and an abusive one. And now he has followed in his old man’s footsteps and hates himself for it: “My dad never did s**t with his life, so he took it out on me. You could say I’m no different. I’d have to say you were right.”
Willie essentially combines the Scrooge/Grinch characters and the Jimmy Stewart/Charlie Brown ones: He hates the holiday and is driven to utter despair by it, at one point actually attempting suicide.
His salvation comes in the unlikely form of a chubby, dimwitted kid named Thurman Merman who apparently becomes convinced he really is Santa Claus. At first Willie abuses the boy too but the kid is so pitiable that even he cannot do this for long. The revelation that there is one person out there that cares for him and needs his help slowly breaks down Willie’s defenses.
The two bond and toward the end of the film there’s even a warm, nostalgic scene where Willie, the kid, and Willie’s bartender girlfriend become a family, decorating a house as Bing Crosby’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” plays on the soundtrack. It’s the first time in the movie that holiday music is used non-ironically.
When Willie and Marcus’s robbery goes awry, he flees to the kid’s house, thinking only of getting his present to the boy before the cops drag him off. In an ironic twist, Willie’s selflessness saves him from going to jail. The epilogue indicates he’ll soon go back to mentoring the kid, who is already learning to stand up for himself thanks to Willie. It is a classic, if offbeat, happy ending.
I suspect in a few more years the glow of nostalgia and familiarity will grow on Bad Santa to the point that people will forget that it was even controversial. Remember, even It’s a Wonderful Life was a flop when it was released in 1946.
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