Bad Santa

(Terry Zwigoff, USA, 2003)


Team America: World Police (2004) has great fun with a standard movie cliché: the lonely, melancholic drunkard who stumbles out of a bar and vomits in an alley. Bad Santa begins with such a scene, and the destiny of this anti-hero, Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), slides downhill from there.

There is a grim, militantly tasteless amusement-factor in gross-out movies that mock children’s entertainment. Bobcat Goldthwait’s bizarre Shakes the Clown (1991) set the bar in this little genre as surely as Nick Giannopoulos’ The Wannabes (2003) constituted its nadir. Now Terry Zwigoff (Crumb [1994]) has a crack, with decidedly mixed results.

Bad Santa is quite a mess. The plot never really flows, and the larger-than-life characters are awkwardly stuck into its supposed logic. For example, Sue (Lauren Graham from television’s Gilmore Girls) is a spunky, semi-alcoholic, sexually perverse gal who makes a fair match for the decrepit Willie (who, in another, disconnected plot strand, is rather fond of performing anal sex on obese, black women). But it is only a single, out-of-nowhere line from Sue ("I really like kids") that much later ties up a dangling story line.

The same goes double for the crime element of the narrative. Willie reluctantly plays Santa each year in a different city for the sake of some grand safe-robbing committed with his elf accomplice, Marcus (Tony Cox). When the corrupt store detective Gin (stand-up comedian Bernie Mac) gets on the trail, the violence that ensues shows how wobbly Zwigoff is when straddling that uncertain zone between drama and humour.

Like Paul Morrissey, Zwigoff aims for a caustic mixture of stylistic flatness, a highly detailed account of low-lives, and an odd kind of poignancy resulting from a no-hoper’s grasp for a little redemption. In this case, a lot hinges on Willie’s slowly evolving friendship with Thurman (Brett Kelly), a child with a severe lack of self-esteem.

Sadly, this film is a disappointment after Zwigoff’s flawed but endearing Ghost World (2001). There are some wonderfully wicked jokes, plus great performances from Thornton and Cox. But it all just dribbles away without ever finding its level.

other Santas: The Hebrew Hammer, Santa Claus

© Adrian Martin November 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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