Tuesday, December 30, 2003
Review by Sombrero Grande
Earlier this holiday season, I reviewed Elf, a warm and funny family comedy that embodied the spirit of Christmas through its adept capturing of child-like innocence and sense of wonder. But what about the children who don’t always get to have a merry Christmas each year; the ones who’ve celebrated the holiday but haven’t, for whatever reason, had a visit from “Santa” in a few years? Maybe their parents are abusive or in jail or something that the characters in the blissful wonderland of Elf would never even have to think about for a moment. Part of what makes Bad Santa so very, very good is that it doesn’t hide, push aside or ignore all the pain and misery that can surround a holiday that’s meant to be jolly; it’s all brought to the forefront. Bad Santa is full of swearing, stealing, drinking, fighting, abuse, neglect, greed, double-crossing, perversion, sodomy, puking, pissing, suicide and murder. Yet despite all these things—or perhaps even because of them—the film achieves a heart-felt and touching embodiment of the spirit of Christmas to an extent that all the family-oriented Elfs could never possibly achieve, largely by contrasting it against many of the ugliest aspects of humanity. Bad Santa shows you the "rough," then slowly and subtly reveals the Christmas spirit "diamond" amongst.
Now, I’m not here to downplay Elf, I’m just using it as an example of your typical feel-good holiday movie. Director Terry Zwigoff doesn’t make those kinds of movies. He has no interest in the “normal” or “feel-good” as is apparent in his previous film Ghost World about two loner girls fascinated with society’s oddballs and outcasts. The same fascination could be said to hold true for Zwigoff. Bad Santa’s cast of characters is a very motley crew. Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie, a drunken loser so miserable and disgusting that he doesn’t even get up to go to the bathroom while working as a mall Santa, he just pisses right in his costume. When a boy pulls his Santa beard off he doesn’t even try to put forth any effort to stop him. He doesn’t care. The only reason he plays Santa is because he’s got a scam going with partner Marcus (Tony Cox), a dwarf who plays Christmas elf to Willie’s Santa, wherein they rob each mall they work at on Christmas Eve. Their ill-gotten goods always last just long enough to make it to the next holiday season when they begin anew at another mall in another part of the country. There’s also Sue (Lauren Graham), a barmaid with a “Santa fetish”, and a handful of other eccentric characters, but the true standout is a kid played by Brett Kelly. “Pudgy” doesn’t even come close to describing this poor soul who wouldn’t last two minutes on a playground without finding himself picked on by even the nicest of kids. It gets even worse when we learn that his mom’s dead, his father’s “away” and his grandmother (Cloris Leachman) is so old and senile that when he cuts his hand open and is bleeding profusely, his grandmother offers him a sandwich. Oh, and by the way, the kid’s name is “Thurman Merman.” Yikes. With no one looking out for him, Thurman is left to fend for himself, so it’s not altogether surprising when he latches onto Willie’s “Santa” in a manner which could be considered “unhealthy” if it wasn’t the best thing going in his life. Hey, at least this “Santa” talks to him!
I questioned a few aspects of the film--such as why would any parent let their child sit on the lap of a foul-mouthed Santa who looks less savory than most prison inmates--but I was willing to suspend disbelief because I was having such a good time. If you’re not too taken-aback by profuse swearing or depictions of the seedier sides of life, Bad Santa is a very funny film with a genuinely touching soul. It warmed my heart...in a warped and twisted and wonderful way.
Okay, if you haven’t seen the film yet, get the f**k out of my spoiler section. Seriously, I’m gonna spoil everything and if you have any interest in seeing Bad Santa this will ruin the ending and most of the surprises, so get outta here!
Thurman is such a wonderfully tragic character. When he revealed that the “brown” was dried blood from when he had cut his hand making the absurd “wooden pickle” for Willie, I felt like crying. He didn’t even carve it well, slicing into his own hand but sucking it up and dealing with the pain because he was making a present for someone he wanted to be his friend.
Willie’s transformation is just as touching throughout its slow progression. In a drunken stupor he tears apart the advent calendar that Thurman prizes just so that he can pillage the chocolates inside. The next morning he feels guilty, probably for the first time in his life, and instead of buying a new calendar tries taping back together the shreds, replacing the missing chocolates with anything he can find (candy corn, aspirin...). It’s a poor job that he does, at best. He’s not bending over backwards for the kid (yet) but his heart is, for once, in the right place. During the final heist, though, it’s clear that Willie’s got a priority other than the money. When he finally gets the “unbreakable” Kitnerboy Safe open (likely named for the “Kitner boy” in Jaws, one of the shark’s more gruesome kills) Willie walks past the money and right to the stuffed elephant that Thurman asked for. When Marcus pulls the gun on him, you can tell what’s on Willie’s mind is Thurman’s disappointment that Santa won’t be bringing him any presents...again. By now he’s willing to risk it all to ensure that Thurman gets not just the elephant, but what the elephant has come to symbolize: his first merry Christmas in years. Lots of Christmas movies have Santa (or some Santa stand-in) racing against the clock to save Christmas...but this is the first time I really cared that Santa succeeded. What would have been lost in all the other films had Santa missed his rounds? Lots of spoiled little kids not getting spoiled further with free gifts is all. Willie’s run from the police, gripping the trunk of the stuffed elephant as if it were all that mattered in life, means so much more. Even after being shot repeatedly he still tries with every ounce of his strength to get the elephant to Thurman, thus proving that someone cares about him.
In his letter to Thurman, Willie swears casually, which might cause one to be taken aback--after all he’s just a kid--but the voice in which the letter is written sounds the way Willie would sound if chatting with a friend, and that’s just what Thurman wanted in Willie: a friend.