The Fourth Day of Christmas: Bad Santa
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
At first glance, Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff, 2005) is an appealing prospect. Marketed as a black comedy taking a fresh look at the character of Santa, and with the backing of both the Coen brothers and the pre-fall-from-grace Weinstein brothers, the stars seemed to be aligning for a stimulating subversive take on the Christmas movie genre. What we end up with, then, is nothing short of an unforgivable wasted opportunity.
Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox are Willie and Marcus, a department store Santa and his little elf helper, respectively. They work for a pittance and are remarkably bad at their jobs, but that doesn’t matter, because it is all a front for their real occupation as thieves. They use their cover to hide out in the stores after closing time on Christmas Eve and make off with whatever merchandise they desire, as well as the contents of the cash vaults. Still sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? It’s certainly a premise I was excited to see play out within an imaginative narrative framework. And yet, just like its own eponymous character, Bad Santa is irritatingly lazy and fails to apply its gifts. Having thought up an excellent concept, it rests on its laurels, not expanding on this idea or taking it any further; letting it just meander about the screen for 100 minutes, speaking for itself in the most limited terms. By this, I mean that there are so many potential stories enabled by its set up that Bad Santa neglects to follow through on. It could have been a thrilling Christmas heist movie. It could have taken the high road of a serious social problem film questioning why Willie has ended up as a sad, lonely, drunk department store Santa. It could have followed the classic Coen brothers’ structure of a man questioning himself and having existential epiphanies. It could even have simply lived up to its promise of being raucously, unapologetically funny Christmas escapism in the mould of films like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (Jeremiah Chechik, 1989), if only with more of a focus on the misbehaving, bawdy bachelor than the comfortable family. Instead, Bad Santa seems caught between all these narrative strands, never fully committing to anything or even taking any decisive action to move its plot or characterisation forward.
In terms of the level of humour in its comedy, I also found Bad Santa lacking. Sure, it has some decently funny moments, but for all its swearing, and reckless, mildly offensive jokes targeting dwarfism and race, it ends up all feeling a little stale. Television shows like Family Guy (1999-) execute these gags so much better than Bad Santa, with so much more hilarity and delicacy, that it makes you wonder, if throwing swear words and insults around was always going to be the extent of the film, why it was ever made in the first place. What’s worse, this basic level of comedy sits pretty uncomfortably with the predicament of Willie. Black comedy can make light of even the most dire of situations, and I don’t think any subject should be completely off-limits to it, but the way Willie is just so relentlessly miserable and plagued by inner pain here, there comes a point in the film where I couldn’t help but feel we should stop laughing at him and get him some serious, medical help. Again, perhaps if the jokes were funnier or there was some narrative weight driving proceedings, it would all flow more smoothly, but, as it comes in Bad Santa, the combination of poor-taste comedy and a deeply troubled protagonist makes for a fairly depressing couple of hours of ‘entertainment’.
In the process of writing this review, I have come to realise that the film does mirror, and therefore reveal, the depths of Willie’s character quite well in its aimless structure and lack of ambition. In this sense (though I’m almost certain this is not what Zwigoff was going for), Bad Santa makes for a good subversion of the Christmas values; a fallen Santa problematising the myth of Christmas magic throughout its stodgy, downbeat rather than uplifting, runtime. This is somewhat ruined by the ending, however, as it takes the easy, familiar path of rebuilding the traditional family, and of Christmas magic resulting in the obvious resolution of good triumphing over bad. This conclusion stops Bad Santa from being a powerfully anti-Christmas film, even as the final shots display a child flipping us the bird. Thus, just as Zwigoff’s film makes bad decisions all the way through, it does so again at the end, at every turn missing out on its potential to be a unique, exciting additional to the alternative Christmas pantheon.
At time of writing, Bad Santa is available to watch on Now TV/Sky Cinema.