Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Bad Santa (2003) ***1/2

Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) may just have the best job in the world. He gets to spend eleven months out of the year lazing about, doing whatever he wants. Then, each December, he meets up with his friend Marcus (Tony Cox) to pull a burglary. Marcus, you see, is a dwarf, which makes it easy for him to get a seasonal job as one of Santa's elves. Willie, who is also a safe-cracker, plays the Santa role, and the job gives them easy access to whatever mall or department store they work in. Once they have cased the joint, they clean it out, then spend the rest of the year enjoying their earnings.

The beauty of this setup is lost on the alcoholic, perpetually-depressed Willie. His drinking and nihilism are gradually making him less reliable as a mall Santa and as a partner-in-crime for Marcus. Then Willie meets a girl. Sue (Lauren Graham) is way too cute for an alcoholic bum like Willie, but apparently she goes for him because she has a Santa fetish. (Also, Billy Bob Thornton married Angelina Jolie in real life, so maybe we are just meant to understand that this is his superpower.) You would think that a hot, new girlfriend might inspire Willie to clean up his act a little, but he pretty much keeps on drinking and trying to screw everything up. It isn't until Willie gets involved with a weird, little, fat kid that he starts to feel some empathy and grow as a person. The kid's parents are gone, leaving him in a fancy house with his demented grandmother. At first, this just gives Willie a great place to hide out and party with Sue, but eventually these four form a twisted family.

“Bad Santa” is an example of how a lot of cinematic sins can be forgiven if a filmmaker gets the tone of a movie right. There are tons of holes in this plot, but the darkly comic tone is maintained consistently without getting TOO dark or resorting to sentimentality. The result is a fairly hilarious little dark comedy. As holiday films go, I'll take “Bad Santa” over “Miracle on 34th Street” any day.

3.5 stars out of 5

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