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Bad Santa (2003)


Director Terry Zwigoff launched a career with his debut film, Crumb, the disturbing yet fascinating documentary about cult comic book artist Robert Crumb. It’s rumored that in order to get Crumb to agree to have a biopic, Zwigoff threatened to kill himself if Crumb refused to cooperate. Then the film festival hero went on to direct the fantastically negative, critically acclaimed Ghost World. From those dark beginnings comes Bad Santa, Zwigoff’s idea of a Christmas movie, and it’s nothing less than you’d expect. Finally, misanthropes have a holiday film of their very own.

In the role he was born to play, Billy Bob Thornton is the bad Santa, a.k.a. Willie Stokes, a chain-smoking, bourbon-guzzling con man who can’t utter a sentence without a curse word. Willie and his little-person friend Marcus (Tony Cox) travel from city to city each holiday season, running the same scam: Willie and Marcus play Santa and elf for cut rates, and then Willie cracks the store/mall’s safe on Christmas Eve, stealing enough money for them to skip town. But until the big Eve heist, Marcus has to keep the drunk, stumbling, foul-mouthed Santa from ‘boning’ women in the dressing rooms and pissing himself in the Santa chair before passing out, so they can keep their jobs.

If you saw the slightly feel-good trailer for this film, you may have guessed by now that this is anything but that. You pretty much know what you’re in for by the time Billy Bob is puking in an alley outside a bar alongside the title in the opening credits. Any signs of uplift or warmth are tempered by aggressively harsh bouts of violence, profanity, and sickening substance abuse. Even the one angelic figure in the film, eight-year-old Thurman (Brett Kelly), the pudgy kid who takes in Willie’s slovenly Santa when he’s hiding out from the cops, isn’t given an inch; he’s endlessly battered by Santa’s insults.

Bad Santa is not for the faint of heart or liver, nor was it made for them.

For those of us who take our comedy unsweetened and black as night, Bad Santa is a comic minefield of some of the funniest, boundary-pushing dialogue ever. Hats off to the writing duo of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who never let up on their audience. While the story is ultimately that of a malcontent who finds his heart, the script’s incredibly unforgiving edge never lets this film become sentimental. These guys, whose writing credits mainly include children’s movies (including the just-released Looney Tunes: Back in Action), obviously have a little bile to release after doing all that kiddie fare – and it’s some very entertaining bile, at that.

Bad Santa is likely to get a nasty reception from a lot of critics, but perhaps it’s for the best. This is not a Christmas film for everyone. No matter how Dimension Films markets it, this movie is the least mainstream-friendly film out this holiday; it’s the anti-Elf. But for those of you who laughed at every plot point I’ve just mentioned, you should know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of this comedic gem. If you’ve got a filthy-minded inner malcontent, let Bad Santa give him or her a real Xmas treat.

Marketed as Badder Santa, the unrated-edition DVD tosses in a few extras in addition to its slightly raunchier director’s cut: Deleted scenes, outtakes, gag reel, and a behind the scenes featurette round out the disc.

A new director’s cut DVD offers a commentary track from Zwigoff and editor Robert Hoffman in addition to the extras from the earlier disc.

Lookin’ for cookies.