Christmas can be about three things, depending on your perspective. It can be about the birth of Jesus, especially if you’re one of those “War on Christmas” types with a victim complex. It can be about giving to the poor and spending time with family (and having very quiet sex in your parent’s guest bedroom) if you’re a Secular Sally. Or, it can be about getting blind drunk and letting all the failures and heartaches, the slights and insults, of the past year explode in a Holiday Bomb of aggression and angry naps.
Bad Santa, directed by Terry Zwigoff of Ghostworld fame, goes for the third option. It is, in my estimation, the greatest feel bad Christmas movie of all time because it understands that for many of us, Christmas is about trying to find the happy medium between too drunk and not drunk enough, the better to get through the pain of listening to your Grammie call our duly elected President unprintable names.
Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie, a broken down alcoholic safecracker who, like me, sometimes forgets that that particular beer bottle has been designated an ashtray. He partners with a black dwarf, played by the brilliant Tony Cox (who must be sad that he can’t even get Hobbit work, because all Hobbits are white, apparently) in a scheme that involves taking jobs as a shopping mall Santa and his helper elf. They take these jobs once a year in order to case department stores and rob them, thus allowing Willie to drink throughout the year and his dwarf pal to save for retirement. This is their last job together.
In the course of keeping his cover, Willie finds himself befriending a boy/fallen log named Thurmon Murmon (Brett Kelly) who still believes in Santa Claus. He moves in with the kid, starts sleeping with a bartender played by Lauren Graham, and basically learns the true meaning of Christmas (albeit in gloriously vulgar terms). It’s the sort of movie you should watch with your parents. Whether they laugh or not will tell you a lot about whether or not you were actually adopted.
In a better world, Billy Bob Thornton would have won an Oscar for this performance; he captures what we love about mean old drunks: the rage, the inability to finish a sentence, the anthropomorphized sadness of an animal that knows it’s the last of its kind. It’s a performance that harks back to the days when alcoholism was something to be celebrated, before master cleanses and encounter therapy took all the fun out of being bombed out of your mind at the office party.
It’s a performance that is both over the top and soulful. We get the feeling that Willie really would like to be a better man and settle down, but he just doesn’t know how. The ad hoc family he forms at the end of the film is one that a lot of us will recognize, frayed around the edges, a little ridiculous, but a family all the same. It helps that Cloris Leachman is around as a near catatonic grandmother to make sandwiches for everyone. Willie comes to care for Thurmon and his family because Thurmon is an unlikable weirdo, just like Willie. Sometimes the things we decide make life worth living are goddamn inscrutable, and that’s okay.
Thurmon, by the way, is impossible to describe. He’s a lonely fat kid who has multiple father issues, but there’s a sweetness to him that wins over both Willie and us. Here is Thurmon, he wants to give you a wooden pickle:
“My acting career is going to get weird real quick.”
This film was John Ritter’s last movie role (unless you count his turn as Clifford the Big Red Dog, which I refuse to). He plays the manager of the store which Willie and his pal are planning to rip off. It’s a classic performance, showcasing what Ritter was best at, befuddlement masking inexpressible hostility. When watching John Ritter in anything, I always got the impression that he was just a few minutes away from dropping his smile and picking up a hatchet. Adding to the roster of dead comedians who went out on a high note, you can check this off as Bernie Mac’s last go round as a black cowboy/head of mall security. If I were a dead actor, I’d be proud to call Bad Santa my last film.
I would make multiple toasts to this film, but I’m trying very hard to keep my reviews under 1,100 words, so instead I’ll leave you with the spirit of the season, as expressed by Billy Bob Thornton:
“Thank you for giving that letter to the cops. I forgot I asked you to do it, but it’s a good thing you did or Santa’s little helper would have plugged his ass. Now the cops know I wrote it, which is gonna keep my ass out of jail. That, plus everyone agreeing that the Phoenix police department shooting an unarmed Santa was even more fucked up than Rodney King.”
Merry Recession, ya’ll.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time someone makes a sandwich or talks about making a sandwich
Take a (very small) Sip: every time Billy Bob pounds one down (otherwise, you’ll die)
Take a Drink: every time a piece of classical music plays over a scene that would make Bill O’Reilly angry