More Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead

Bad Santa

As sacred cows go in our culture, Santa is pretty high on the list. Slaughtering that cow is the basic premise of Bad Santa.

The film, produced by the Coen Brothers and directed by Terry Zwigoff from a script credited to John Requa and Glen Ficarra (Zwigoff and the Coens also reportedly had a hand in it), is a bit poky and visually drab.

But it’s also a blessed Yuletide gift to those in a Scroogian frame of mind this season—lashing out at commercially enforced festivity, it's one of the funniest holiday movies ever, yet it carries a surprising jolt of redemption, too. It is to Christmas movies what Bad Lieutenant was to cop movies.

The title character is Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), a raging alcoholic, lecher and foul-mouthed, unhygienic, self-loathing basket case. Willie's job? He works as a department-store Santa, enduring gift requests—and various bodily secretions—from legions of tiny tots with their eyes all aglow.

The reason for this questionable career path is that Willie is a actually a safecracker, and the Santa guise allows him, along with his diminutive, long-suffering "elf" partner Marcus (Tony Cox), to infiltrate the store in time to clean it out of its Christmas take.

It may occur to the practical-minded that this is just about the silliest M.O. that a couple of thieves could dream up, but Bad Santa doesn't ask to be taken the least bit seriously as a caper movie.

The plot is merely a peg on which to hang scenes of Thornton, as Santa, insulting and swearing at little kids, smoking, reeling around drunkenly, vomiting, wetting himself and trying to get as close as possible to hefty women.

In the meantime, Marcus, the real brains of the outfit, struggles to smooth things over with the milquetoast mall manager (John Ritter, very good in his final film role) and a shady mall security chief (Bernie Mac).

Rupture-inducingly funny as most of these scenes are, they wouldn't be enough by themselves to sustain a whole film. But Bad Santa takes off on a second narrative strand when Willie gets involved, first, with a sexy bartender (the excellent Lauren Graham of TV’s Gilmore Girls) and, secondly, with a lonely, overweight little boy (the first-rate Brett Kelly) who takes to him, and who seems oblivious to his put-downs and his outpourings of obscenity.

If you sense a sentimental ending coming, you're not wrong, but somehow in the context of Bad Santa, with its spleen and invective and underlying disgust at the violation of the meaning of Christmas, the sentiment is genuinely touching.

The film is, really, just one more of the endless variations on the Scrooge theme—the hard heart softened by the Season of Goodwill. But by keeping things unwholesome, Bad Santa remains emotionally convincing.

The DVD—There are two versions of the film available on disc. One comes in a white package, has the usual batch of outtakes and behind-the-scenes featurettes. The other comes in a red package and is called Badder Santa—it features several minutes of the raunchier outtakes reincorporated into the film.

oth versions are funny, but on the whole, I’d recommend the latter. If you like your Santa bad, chances are you’ll like him “badder” even better.

Bad Santa is rated R; Badder Santa is unrated. Neither version is remotely appropriate for younger kids.