Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) is one bad Santa. An alcoholic, womanizing, grumpy old man, Soke spends each holiday season with his dwarf partner Marcus (Tony Cox, “Me, Myself & Irene”), listening to kids’ wish lists during the day as department store Santa and elf, and robbing the very same stores at night. Roused out of his Floridian drinking binge, Soke heads to Phoenix to pull another score. There he meets The Kid (Brett Kelly), an overweight, dim soul who wants so badly to believe Soke is the real Santa, that he offers him shelter when the heat is turned up on Soke by the police and a mall security chief (Bernie Mac). Soke doesn’t take to The Kid, but cannot bear to see him bullied and abused by anyone but himself, so he offers to help The Kid out with his troubles while quietly planning the next store robbery.
The temptation will be there, but I implore all parents not to see “Bad Santa” with their children. Even if it’s “dollar Tuesday,” and all showings of “Elf” are sold out, and the poster has a picture with Santa on it, with a trusty elf at his side. This film is not for kids. Heed that R rating. That being said, as adult entertainment as movies come these days, “Bad Santa” is a pretty entertaining holiday comedy, though one laced with acid and reeking of vodka. The film is directed by Terry Zwigoff, who is no stranger to darkly comic tales, having made “Ghost World” and the classic documentary, “Crumb.”
Zwigoff is proficient at making wholly offensive material seems like a rip-roarin’ good time, but “Bad Santa” taxes the filmmaker a little too hard. The central joke of the film is Soke’s reprehensible behavior toward kids, women, friends, and himself. Soke drinks, beats up teenagers, has kinky sex, and is generally disrespectful to anything that crosses his path, and remember, this is a comedy. Zwigoff enjoys shoving Soke’s vulgarity into the audiences‘ face, and for the initial moments of “Bad Santa,” it’s a hoot to watch. Zwigoff even places the title credit over a shot of Soke vomiting in an alley, which should be the indicator right there if “Santa” is the right film for you. But Zwigoff and the writers keep hammering Soke’s habits into the ground, so that the shock value has worn off long before the gags cease. There are enough variations of the F-word to fill a small nation, and, in context, it’s really quite funny. It’s more that Zwigoff doesn’t know when to pull back, leaving the film’s vulgarity level on at an aggressive pitch for the entire run of the show. It tires quickly.
Even when the laughs eventually die, “Santa” remains a fairly entertaining sit, due mostly to the performances. Assembling a great cast, Zwigoff leaves the acidic flavors of the script for the talent to sort out. “Gilmore Girls” sweetheart Lauren Graham does a complete 180-degree turn as a ditzy barmaid with a deeply sexual Santa fetish. Tony Cox almost steals the film with a sharp comic turn, and is often the picture’s last hope for a voice of reason. But this is Billy Bob’s movie, and he knows it. Thornton isn’t the strongest comedic actor around, but his instincts are usually dead on, and he gives himself entirely to the role. Spitting bile and suckling a bottle at any given moment, Thornton is “Bad Santa.” Whatever the performance lacks in nuance makes up for it in commitment.
“Bad Santa” attempts to end on a holiday happiness note, and the sudden turn to saccharine storytelling doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the film. Even with its sugarplum ending, “Bad Santa” is the perfect film for the holiday hating, alcoholic, gluttonous bastard in all of us.Rating: B