Barring It’s a Wonderful Life and, oddly enough, A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas, most supposed Christmas films don’t seem to understand the holiday they’re meant to be portraying. They’re commercial and trite, and if they do touch on themes of family and love, it’s in a bland, generic manner that’s been done to death a thousand times over. I’m an agnostic and fairly set in my lack of religious beliefs, but if you remove the religious aspect from the equation, I can appreciate the themes of love and unity that represent the modern meaning of Christmas. And, perhaps, that’s why it’s so odd that the best Christmas film, and the one most truest to the themes of the holiday, since It’s a Wonderful Life is the raunchy modern cult classic, Bad Santa.
What makes Bad Santa such a genuine and sincere tale of Christmas when, on the surface, it seems like the height of the anti-Christmas film? With a deeply unsympathetic lead (at first) and a story about a modern-day Grinch (a parallel that only struck me for the first time as I wrote that sentence), Bad Santa seems as if it should be intent on skewering Christmas with all its might. Yet, though the film is cynical, it’s never mean-tempered, and with a tale of redemption, friendship, and (in its own way) family, Bad Santa has more to say about what Christmas means in the 2000s than any other film of the last decade, and it also serves as an indictment of the crass commercialism that has come to pollute the holiday.
Willie (The Man Who Wasn’t There‘s Billy Bob Thornton) is a sad-sack loser with no morals, no friends, and practically no reason to live other than the next fuck or his next drink. Willie makes a living, if you can call it that, posing as a mall Santa at Christmas time and robbing the department store safes with the help of his dwarf friend Marcus (Tony Cox), who poses as one of his elves. Willie’s an alcoholic and a jackass, and he gets less reliable at the job every year, and even though he swears to Marcus at the film’s beginning that that score was his last, come next Christmas Willie is broke and ready to head on down to Phoenix, Arizona to get to work again.
But, Phoenix proves to be the beginning of the end of Willie’s career as a safe cracker and department store Santa. As his self-loathing and alcoholism reach new lows, Willie stumbles into his only chance for redemption when he hooks up with a lonely barmaid (Lauren Graham) with a strange Santa fetish and move in with an odd but sweet kid (Brett Kelly) whose the object of bullying by other children and Willie himself, though Willie begins to grow fond of the possibly mentally challenged child. Willie’s life is complicated even further when his drunken antics gain the ire of the department store manager (John Ritter) who sets the mall detective (Bernie Mac) to try and figure out what Willie and Marcus are up to.
First and foremost, I haven’t seen Sling Blade so I can’t say for certain if this is the best performance of Billy Bob Thornton’s career, but it’s certainly the best out of all of his films that I’ve seen. Thornton’s Willie is an especially loathsome creature. He drinks; he curses; he steals; he uses; he abuses; he fornicates. Yet, underneath it all, there’s a heart for the audience to latch on to. You begin, despite his almost endless list of character flaws, to grow quite fond of Willie. You want to see him improve himself. And, even at the depths of his despair and misanthtropy, Billy Bob Thornton reminds us that there’s something human still left in Willie’s core, and it’s a tricky tightrope act to conquer that Billy Bob Thornton does just fine. It was one of the finest comedy performances of the ’00’s.
And, besides Thornton’s brilliant comic turn, Bad Santa is unabashedly hilarious from start to finish. Yes, there are moments where the humor misses. Bits about a repressed homosexual Arab trying to rape Willie or Willie asking the kid if he’s a faggot are unnecessarily homophobic and not funny, but mostly, the movie hits all of the right notes. By stripping away the varnish of the “noble criminal,” Bad Santa is free to make Willie as miserable and pathetic a piece of shit as they can (as, a real life criminal could very well be), and through his complete lack of social graces and meanness, Bad Santa scores endless laughs.
Yet, despite the gross-out humor and the general rough edges of the film, Bad Santa impresses most of all because of how genuinely touching it can be. Because of the film’s devotion to character, Willie’s arc and growth throughout the film are rewarding. In realistic fashion, Willie doesn’t find total redemption Ebenezer Scrooge style. He’s still a crude, foul-mouthed asshole by film’s end, but he reconnects with his inner humanity just enough for the film to chart a winning emotional path. His relationship with the Kid (whose name of Therman isn’t revealed until the film’s climax) is rewarding even after multiple viewings.
Bad Santa is one of the only modern Christmas films that I consider part of the required Christmas cinematic canon. It’s dark and gritty enough for those who don’t generally enjoy Christmas films (such as myself) to find plenty of laughs, but it has enough heart to know more about Christmas than most of its peers. The occasionally homophobic humor is quite dated and sad, but if you can get past those moments in the film, you will find not just the best Christmas film of the last several decades, but also simply one of the best mainstream comedies of the last ten years.
Final Score: A-