Nov 22, 2016

Why "Bad Santa" is a Christmas Movie Masterpiece

Billy Bob Thornton
In the consumer-driven market that is America, it seems that Christmas starts earlier and earlier. While the fight to wait for at least Thanksgiving to pass has failed (look out, Halloween), it has raised a certain cynicism towards the overbearingly positive time of year when people play the same few dozen songs ad nauseum. The movies aren't much better and challenge romantic comedies to have plots as predictably hackneyed. For those wanting a different version of "The holiday spirit," there is director Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa: a masterpiece that takes the subject of a corrupt mall Santa and uses it to explore the dourness lying underneath the surface. It may be too crass, too sexual for some people. But for those - specifically in the retail business - it is a shining beacon of the frustration that comes with trying to go against instinct and be nice to everyone. More than any other film, it also reflects our tumultuous relationship with consumerism as well as the big red man himself.
At the center is Willie (Billy Bob Thornton): a man who is so disengaged with life that he shamelessly drinks, courts women, and throws caution to hygiene. He doesn't mince words, occasionally snapping at kids or drunkenly destroying Santa's village. To say the least, he has no filter and isn't above calling his employers (John Ritter and Bernie Mac) offensive names. He mostly takes jobs as a mall Santa in order to rob them blind when the stores close at the end of the holiday season. With his trustworthy partner Marcus (Tony Cox) who also serves as the more professional counterpart to the operation, their story focuses on the failures that come with Willie's personal incompetence. After one last heist that makes him rich, he is unable to hold onto his money without confrontation. Thus, it's time for the one last heist to have another last heist; this time in Phoenix, Arizona.
The images are immediately rebellious of the Santa Claus that cinema has beloved for a century. As Willie and Marcus walk across a blazing parking lot to Christmas tunes in costume, Willie throws a bottle at a car whose alarm reasonably goes off. The chaos is about to ensue. It's just a matter of determining what chaos that is. Will Willie's decaying self-respect be the death of his career, or will he get away with the one last heist? Thankfully his bosses are just as incompetent. Bob (Ritter) is too timid to do much of anything, and Gin (Mac) is a bold threat who rarely has to deal with Willie straight-on. It's Bob who has to watch Willie mess up time after time, even hooking up with women in changing rooms.
The moral center is Thurman (Brett Kelly): a young and awkward-looking boy who is the polar opposite of Willie. He is prone to bullying and is too optimistic to even recognize Willie's cynicism. Along with Willie's girlfriend Sue (Lauren Graham), the central genius of Bad Santa is the exploration of how everyone relates to Santa. For Thurman, he is a symbol of all that's good. He's even willing to overlook his crass behavior in favor of the idealized vision of hope for all children. Thurman is a kid who is constantly bullied for being unattractive, obese, and a bit of a dimwit. Willie doesn't hide his frustration. In a perfect acting point by Thornton, he embodies the frustration of a man abused by his own parents, reflecting his inability to break the traditional that likely spawned many miserable Christmases. The irony of him trying and failing to be nice to others as a result is its own perfect psychological exploration through dark comedy and vibrant cursing.
The question soon becomes: How do we as consumers feel when the man who is supposed to make everyone happy is actually miserable and throwing bottles in the parking lot? There's a desperation in Bob's desire to portray his mall in positive fashion. Even Marcus, who is only doing it for the money, has more of a passion in his insincerity. Even as Thurman reveals that his only reason for believing that Willie was Santa was for companionship, there's a sense that the only way to truly be happy is to give into the facade. It's a moment perfectly shown when Willie is confronted by a happy child only to scream "I'm on my f--king lunch break." People want to see the best during Christmas time, but have to be ready to discover that not everyone is happy and that those who are aren't probably be honest with themselves.
Zwigoff is an excellent director who balances the morose drama with the verbose comedy that shines through in beautiful and vulgar fashion. He is able to find the humanity in Willie without ever making him sympathetic. Even if Thurman is the silver lining, he isn't the hero to the story. He is merely a tool for Willie to find happiness in sleazy ways. The subversion is effective thanks to the rarity of mall Santa films, especially those that don't care in a way that raunchy comedies rarely are allowed to be. It helps that Thornton seems born to play this role (though he would unfortunately play subpar versions of this role in later inferior films) and brings an earnestness to every hostile outbreak. Speaking as Zwigoff's Ghost World also focused on unconventional outsiders, there are few outsiders deserving of great cinema like those who genuinely hate Christmas. Bad Santa is their personal gift.
There have been many attempts to make Hard-R comedies for Christmas audiences, but few are able to break out of tropes. Films like A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas try to mix the spirit with crassness, but usually fail to rise above conventions - no matter how good their humor is. Even if Bad Santa takes place at Christmas, it isn't trapped inside the holly jolly attitudes. It fights back at every turn, asking what the significance of pretending to be happy really means. For the sequel to Zwigoff's masterpiece, he has been replaced by Mean Girls director Mark Waters and Whip It writer Shauna Cross. It seems doubtful that the film will capture the same impact, especially 13 years later. Even then, one can only hope that it is as unconventional of a sequel as Bad Santa is an unconventional holiday masterpiece. Time will only tell if time has been kind to our favorite drunken mall Santa.

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