Bad Santa is, like many crass comedies, a one-joke movie. The test for such movies is two-fold: how many differently amusing ways do the filmmakers develop for delivering that one joke, and how much diverting ornamental dressing do they sprinkle around that single source of humor to save it from redundancy throughout 90-minutes. In the case of Terry Zwigoff's 2003 debasement of Christmas movie tropes, the answer to both questions is "just enough."
Billy Bob Thornton stars as the titular anti-hero, Willie, whose seasonal job as a mall Santa serves as a Trojan Horse for a Christmas Eve heist which keeps him and his "elf" partner (Tony Cox) in spending money until the next holiday season rolls around. As they implausibly integrate themselves into an Arizona shopping center's holiday program with another year's income on the line, Willie's increasingly suicidal drunkenness is just one of many obstacles, including Bernie Mac as a shifty mall security director, Lauren Graham as a randy bartender with a Santa-fetish, and young Brett Kelly as a lonely, unsupervised boy who looks to Willie's Santa for a source of rare and unlikely holiday joy. Bad Santa attempts to walk the tricky tightrope of appealing just enough to both traditional holiday sentiment and the cynics who reject such sap in favor of watching someone in a Santa hat spew profanities while puking and pissing himself, and mostly gets it right; or, as right as it can without fully pleasing or alienating either of these two disparate factions. Thornton and Cox are engaging degenerates, making a lot of the les ambitious humor — gags like Santa swearing at children or getting punched in the groin — enjoyable, and Graham's presence adds an innate brightness that takes the edge off moments that would otherwise be irreversibly seedy. The subplot involving awkward, moon-faced Kelly is where Bad Santa might have gotten into the biggest trouble, but Zwigoff smartly keeps his touch on the the strings of emotion as light as possible, allowing the mere presence of these hackneyed elements to resonate without much direct contact. On the other side of Bad Santa's dual-personality, however, its non-committal teasing is less satisfying: the "bad" is all too safely contained within Hollywood constraints of feel-good-iness to ever be satisfyingly transgressive (aside from one inexplicable scene involving Ajay Naidu). This might be for the best, making Bad Santa a broadly palatable dark comedy; those, like me, who hunger for a little more bite in our Christmas movies, might want to seek out Zwigoff's slightly shorter — and reportedly nastier — director's cut. John Ritter, Cloris Leachman and Octavia Spencer appear in supporting roles that do little to capitalize on their assets.
Bad Santa was brought to the Potluck Film Fest by Nigel Druitt. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #239 / 1762 (86%), where it's his 6th favorite Holiday Movie out of 30 on his Flickchart. It ranked on my Flickchart at #1069 (73%), making it #11 on my chart of 49 Holiday Movies.