Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa feels like a delightful piece of sketch comedy extended to feature length, but it's a better movie than that description suggests. Yes, the movie basically has one joke – a mall Santa whose behavior and language are consistently terrible – but unlike most one-joke movies, this one never wears out its welcome.
In a brief bit of opening voiceover narration, Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton, The Man Who Wasn't There) informs us that he is suffering from depression, and that he's contemplating suicide. It's a striking note of despair that underscores all of the ribald wackiness that follows, as Willie and his pal Marcus (Tony Cox, Oz, the Great and Powerful) – an African-American little person – prepare to undertake their annual heist. Their strategy is simple and successful: they convince a mall to hire them to play Santa and an elf, they tolerate little kids for a few weeks, they learn the ins and outs of the store, they rob the place and then they spend the next eleven months relaxing in some exotic location. Rinse and repeat.
This year, Marcus is worried they won't actually make it to the finish line. Willie is perpetually drunk, and doesn't even attempt to deliver a half-convincing performance as Santa. He staggers into the mall, plops down in his chair, insults the kids one by one and then wanders off to the plus-sized women's clothing section to see if he can convince somebody to engage in a little hanky-panky in a dressing room stall. It'll be a Christmas miracle if he can keep his job for the entirety of the season.
Bad Santa feels like the outlier in Zwigoff's filmography; a broad, crude comedy sandwiched between a pair of respected documentaries (Louie Bluie and Crumb) and a pair of charming indie flicks (Ghost World and Art School Confidential). This is lowbrow stuff from start to finish, but it works thanks to some memorably profane dialogue (Glenn Ficcara and John Requa are the credited writers, but Zwigoff and the Coen Brothers did some fine-tuning) and Thornton's consistently entertaining performance: he's so weary and bitter, but he's liberated in the way that only a man who has absolutely nothing to live for can be liberated.
The basic structure of the film is on the formulaic side, as Willie eventually makes friends with an overweight kid (Brett Kelly, Trick 'r Treat) and slowly transforms into a begrudging father figure of sorts. I see you rolling your eyes, but the impressive thing is that Zwigoff and Thornton never go for cheap pathos. In scene after scene, the filmmakers opt for the funny route over the sentimental one. The crippling depression and personal growth lurking beneath this story is affecting precisely because the movie rarely emphasizes it: Thornton tells us what's up at the start, and the rest of the subtext is left for us to find. So many dirty comedies deliver their funniest stuff in the first half and then turn gooey as characters start changing and everyone learns important lessons. Bad Santa remains committed to its transgressiveness from start to finish.
Thornton gets a lot of the biggest laughs, but the film benefits from a talented supporting cast that mixes up the brand of comedy on offer from scene to scene. John Ritter (in his final big-screen appearance) is delightful as the squeamish mall manager, wincing, sighing and wrinkling his nose while recounting Willie's horrific antics to the no-nonsense security chief (an amusing Bernie Mac, sucking on oranges and filling his beverages with stool laxatives). Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) has a few fun scenes as Sue, a bartender with a serious Santa fetish (the origins of which are explained in a wonderfully ridiculous, half-muttered monologue that Graham kills). Then there's young Kelly as The Kid, whose unreadable facial expressions and dim-witted questions serve as a tremendous source of irritation for Willie. There must be at least two dozen scenes in which Willie offers some variation of, “What the f--- is wrong with you, kid?” Somehow, these moments never cease to be entertaining, and that's why Bad Santa works.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Year: 2003