Now let me preface this by saying that I absolutely love the holidays. In a couple weeks my house will look like Kmart's version of the Macy's display, complete with all the crappy Santa mugs and two-dollar Nutcrackers that Wal-Mart was thoughtful enough to display this year. What I hate about the holidays is the excuse they give Hollywood to turn rest-of-the-year schmaltz into schmaltz with elves and reindeer, repackaging the white elephant time and time again with different cuddly, inoffensive characters. At the end of those cozy comedies, everyone's happy, everyone learns good Christmas lessons, and everything turns out all right--in other words, no one ends up riddled with bullets, run over by cars, or praying to the porcelain god. No one, that is, before Bad Santa, a beautiful film that shows Christmas is as much for the lewd-minded scum as it is for the cheery reindeer and talking snowmen.
Directed by Terry Zwigoff (mastermind behind Crumb and Ghost World), Santa tells the story of Willie T. Stokes (Thornton) and his "small person friend," Marcus (Tony Cox), who've conjured up a yearly scheme posing as Santa and his elf at various department stores around the country, only to rob the places blind on Christmas Eve. When we meet the criminal pair, they're just about to pull off a holiday heist, which Willie believes will be his last--until we see him weaseling cocktails from a beach bar, drinking away his riches, and being forced to pull off another scheme the following year because he's such a drunken piece of shit he can't do anything else.
The rest of the movie is dark slapstick about how Willie and Marcus acclimate themselves to their new destination (Phoenix) in the days leading up to the next big payoff. Willie does this by committing sodomy with a shopper in the department store's dressing room, fucking a bartender named Sue (Lauren Graham), and guzzling enough booze to pickle his liver into a shriveled reminder of its former shape. When that isn't dysfunctional enough, he shacks up with a seemingly delusional, literally snot-nosed kid who trusts Willie enough (thinking he's really Santa) to let him live in his house with his crazy grandma (Cloris Leachman). Marcus, on the other hand, spends his time either with his hypermaterialistic girlfriend, Lois (Lauren Tom), or attempting to keep Willie in line (i.e., not hitting on jail bait or passing out on the job). Marcus' difficult gig as watch-keeper becomes more complicated, though, under the suspicious eye of wholesome store manager Bob Chipeska (the late John Ritter) and his not-so-wholesome head of store security (Bernie Mac).
The premise is simple to decipher, but it's the intrusions on good taste that make this movie brilliant. Nothing is sacred in Bad Santa--not a child's trust, not a sick alcoholic's slumps into oblivion, and definitely not the "most wonderful time of the year." Zwigoff (and executive producers the Coen brothers) take an irreverent attitude toward everything, replacing the sugarcoated holiday films of yore with a shiny new slime-coated lease on lewdness.
The movie isn't totally toxic, though, and toward the end the film's stronghold on offensiveness loosens a little, allowing for a couple nearly redeemable traits to come out in some of the characters (while redemption falls completely by the wayside in others). And yeah, there are still "lessons learned," but the path to enlightenment is littered with so many stolen cars, single-can empties, and Ho-Ho-Hos (of the thong-bikinied variety) that Bad Santa makes the Grinch look like the Son of God. And for that, I am truly thankful this holiday season.