Bad Santa (2003)

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Terry Zwigoff directs Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox and Brett Kelly about a drunk, perverted, anti-social safe cracker who gains seasonal employment as a mall Santa every year to rip-off the Christmas Eve take. 

A misanthropic festive diamond. There’s an independent spirit to it (visually Zwigoff is no bland sitcom helmer, the script originated with the Coen Brothers) that compliments and even elevates the dirty, gag heavy proceedings. Full of loose, unnecessary diversions that nudge it from funny to perfection. An attempted car park Santa buggery, the grandma’s obsession with sandwiches, Willie’s predilection for ladies from the “Big & Tall” section. All this extraneous detail, disconnected from the plot, paints a rich, if world weary, mini-universe for our antagonists to populate. And what a gleefully grubby set of antagonists they are! Lauren Tom’s craven, consumerist, sour-faced wife, truly the most heartless of these clowns. Tony Cox as a foul mouthed midget who has found his niche, exasperatedly keeping the scam on the rails despite his partner’s self-inflicted free-fall. Bernie Mac and John Ritter essentially sharing a role. Sure there is a clunkiness in the hastily edited together baton hand over, the feel that coverage or rehearsal footage of Ritter (who passed away mid-production) is being recycled to bring Mac into the narrative. But even these compromised scenes have a morbidly amusing energy, two dead men who probably never shared a set together having stronger comedic heat than most marquee headliners generate. Ritter’s mall boss is distastefully repressed, Mac a self assured, sabotaging force of nature as the mall security chief. Lauren Graham’s keen bartender is also a filthy delight. That’s already a ton of strong comedy acting. Then we get to the absolute gold. Brett Kelly gives one of the best child performances ever – a dumpy, inscrutable kid who wants to be this ramshackle Father Christmas’ friend. Like Kevin Spacey’s Keyser Söze or Kevin Spacey’s John Doe, it is a complete head scratching enigma of a supporting turn. Does he know the frustrating game he is playing to subtly get his own way or is Thurman Murman really that unaware? The blank, snot nosed kid runs rings around Billy Bob Thornton’s failed human. A man who had seen all the angles and can’t even be bothered to play them anymore. A man so unmotivated that suicide would be too much effort. Watching him learn the true meaning of Christmas, shrug his shoulders and search his pockets for a pint of scotch, is watching Billy Bob Thornton do what he was born to do. Just like Trading Places is the It’s a Wonderful Life for the jaded, Bad Santa is The Shawshank Redemption for the permanently hungover. Redemption tastes different when you throw up on yourself on a weekly basis. Thank the Talking Walnut, they never cashed-in and made a cheap sequel… Oh shit! Oh well…

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