Bad Santa (2003)

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

Sometimes a great idea falls on its face because it forgets that the great idea needs some kind of story to go with it. Alone, it’s just a lot of unrealized potential, such as in the movie Bad Santa.

This is a single note, single joke movie. Twenty or thirty minutes into it you find the smiles have fled as you wonder when a story, or anything other than the same damn joke, will start.

But nothing does. The same joke goes on as they beat it to death. Once dead, they beat on it some more. And on and on and …

Billy Bob Thorton plays a small time thief, a drunken loser. His main scam is working with a dwarf (who is the brains of the two) as Santa and his elf.

Each December they are hired by major shopping stores or malls to play Santa and entertain kids.

As they do this, they case the place until they are ready. Then, they rob it and make off with the goods.

It’s their one big job of the year.

Unfortunately, Santa (Thorton) is increasingly drunk, growing worse at his “job” (of thieving) due to his screw ups.

He’s a moral degenerate, and looks it.

Making this kind of person the centre of the story is funny because of the extreme contrast between what we picture a Santa to be and what Thorton’s Santa is.

Where the movie screws up is in thinking this joke alone is enough to fill an hour and thirty-eight minutes. But after the initial amusement, it flags and there is nothing else to support it.

I guess part of the joke is that Santa gets worse and worse. Just when we think he’s reached as low as he can go, he pushes it a bit further.

But to repeat, it starts to wear very thin after a while.

There is some effort to come up with a little more – the nod to Hollywood and happy endings – but it’s halfhearted and not thought through well. Essentially, it’s a retread. (This is partly due to the movie having absolutely no interest in going there – the movie is about the opposite of this.)

The funniest moments I found were between Billy Bob Thorton and Brett Kelly, the kid who latches on to Santa.

In these scenes, Santa is generally less obnoxious. The humour is in how the Kid seems oblivious to his faults and Santa is utterly bewildered by this.

Another really good element is the performance of John Ritter. Some of his takes, his facial moments, are priceless.

However the movie wastes the comic talents of Bernie Mac by giving him little to do. When he is on screen, they don’t give him much to work with. This is too bad; he might have helped save this disaster.

I know a lot of people think the film is daring and outrageous and so on. I would too if it had tried to be a decent movie at the same time.

But it didn’t. Rather, this is Hollywood’s idea of an “angry” movie. Imagine the sloppy sentimentalism of a cheap Christmas card. Now think of it’s exact opposite – that’s Bad Santa. It has just as much depth and is just as stupid.

The movie is essentially a comic skit that goes on way too long.

1½ stars out of 4.
(Originally posted 2003.)

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