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Bad Santa (2003)

He doesnt care if youre naughty or nice.

Directed by:

Terry Zwigoff

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 91 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

Country: Germany, United States

If Christmas is the season to be jolly, a time when feelings of merriness, joy and goodwill to all humankind are supposed to swell in the hearts of us all, then there have always been those, from Dickens’ Scrooge through to the Grinch of Dr Suess, who are unafraid to voice their opposition to the enforced mirth and crass consumption of the Noël period. And for every saccharine Santa kiddie flick there is another film which dares to show that all the tinsel, carols, presents and pudding in the world are not enough to conceal the darkness and despair that lie in the bottom of the Christmas stocking. Think The Nightmare Before Christmas, think all those Santa slasher films (a surprisingly well represented horror subgenre) – hell, even It’s a Wonderful Life, America’s favourite heart-warming Christmas classic, is essentially about a man depressed to the point of suicide. So ‘Bad Santa’ is not alone in tearing into the values of Christmas as though they were so much wrapping paper on an overpriced gift – but cinema has not seen such an alcoholic, priapic, foul-mouthed lowlife as Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) in the rôle of children’s entertainer since Bobcat Goldthwaite’s underrated ‘Shakes the Clown’.

Self-loathing no-hoper Willie cuts an unlikely figure as a department store Santa, given that his idea of Christmas spirit is a gallon of whisky, and he cannot even get on the wagon let alone a sleigh – but as long as his side-kick ‘elf’, the diminutive Marcus (Tony Cox), can keep Willie from shouting profanities at the children, sodomising large women in the changing rooms and soiling his own Santa costume, the pair plan to exploit their positions to rob the store together on Christmas Eve – as they have done in different US states every year. Meanwhile Willie takes up residence in the house of a strange kid (Brett Kelly) with absent parents and a demented grandmother, taking full advantage of the boy’s conviction that he is the real Santa. Soon Willie’s new girlfriend Sue (Lauren Graham), a bartender with a Christmas fetish (“Fuck me, Santa!”), has also moved in, and Willie finds something like domesticity for the first time in his life – but the canny store detective Gin (Bernie Mac) sniffs a rat, Marcus is running out of patience with his unreliable partner, and it is starting to look as though the dipsomaniac Santa will be spending Christmas behind bars – or even in a body bag.

Although they are only its executive producers, the imprimatur of the Coen brothers is all over ‘Bad Santa’, with its grotesque characters, hilarious dialogue and barely competent heists – but nothing made by the Coens has ever been as jaw-droppingly irreverent as this. Once again, as in his previous films ‘Crumb’ and ‘Ghost World’, director Terry Zwigoff shows a masterful handling of the marginalised and the maudlin, working from a screenplay by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Cats and Dogs) that is blacker than the burnt bits on a Christmas roast. It is all held together by Billy Bob Thornton, who for all his character’s selfishness, perversity and downright mean-spiritedness, still manages to engage our frazzled sympathies without ever being fully redeemed. I can’t wait to see him play the Easter bunny.

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It's Got: Talking walnuts; hand-carved wooden pickles; decapitated donkeys; excellent performances, including the brilliant John Ritter (in his last ever performance) as a store manager bamboozled by his own political correctness; and the name Leonardo da Vinci used as an unlikely but effective insult ("Whatd you call me...?", "I called you a fuckin guinea homo from the fifteenth fuckin century, you dickhead!").

It Needs: Viewers who are not easily offended by what one character calls the three Bs (booze, bullshit and butt-fucking).

Alternatives:

It's A Wonderful Life, Shakes the Clown, The Nightmare Before Christmas

Summary

Hilariously irreverent antidote to a cloying Christmas.

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