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Play a round of free association with me for a minute. When you think of Christmas, what dances through your mind? Visions of sugarplums? Brightly lit evergreens, colorful presents, nativity scenes and figgy pudding? Well, director Terry Zwigoff wants to obliterate all that radiant imagery with his latest film, Bad Santa, a derisive ode to debauchery and pessimism that does all it can to take the magic out of the Advent season.
Willie is a suicidal, chain-smoking, chronically depressed, fornicating, foul-mouthed wreck who has drunk enough liquor to reduce his liver to a shriveled bit of beef jerky. He also happens to be a department store Santa Claus for one-twelfth of the year. But Willie doesn’t don the red suit because he loves Christmas and the children the season means so much to. Far from it. He abhors the “dirty little snot-nosed freaks” and the entire Christmas thing with every fiber of his alcohol ravaged body. No, Willie puts on the fluffy hat every year because he and his partner in crime, a little person named Marcus who doubles as his elf, rob their retail employers blind. (Willie cracks the safes while Marcus filches expensive jewelry and furs.)
They’ve been pulling this heist for the past seven years, but their scheme is on the verge of falling apart. For one thing, Willie’s dissolution is becoming more and more obvious. He arrives at work stupid, fall-down drunk. He engages in sex acts in changing rooms. He screams obscenities at parents and youngsters who disturb him while he’s on his break. That has Marcus worried that Willie might blow their cover. As does a child named Thurman who seems convinced that the worthlessly inept Willie is actually Santa Claus and won’t leave them alone.
Thurman is a genuinely kind soul. He rescues Willie from an attacker and, wanting to befriend him, welcomes the crooked Kris Kringle into his home, showering him with affection, food and gifts. A woman proclaims her love for children and tries to instill a sense of charity toward them in Willie. Willie eventually warms to Thurman, driving away a gang of tormenting bullies and trying to teach the pudgy tyke how to defend himself. In a moment of misguided charity, Willie even risks his life to deliver a Christmas present to the boy.
A number of nativity scenes are shown. A woman describes how her Jewish father forbade any mention of Santa in his house. Thurman bizarrely comments that his dead mother “lives in God’s house” with “ghosts” and “the talking walnut.” He also reads selections from an Advent calendar that are straight from the Gospel of Matthew and rightly proclaims them to be “the story of Christmas.” Willie, however, ignominiously pronounces that the tale of Christ’s incarnation “sucks.” While trying to dismiss a nosy neighbor concerned about his yard decorations, Willie states, “We don’t celebrate Christmas here. We’re Muslims.” A person makes a mocking statement about Jews for Jesus.
Gags abound about sexual virility, genitalia, venereal diseases, adultery, homosexuality, oral sex, prostitution, statutory rape, orgasms, masturbation, foreplay and public sex. Willie takes up with a woman named Sue (Gilmore Girls star Lauren Graham in a disturbing performance) who has a fetish for men dressed as Santa Claus. Their violent copulation in a car and a hot tub is accompanied by orgasmic groans and repeatedly screamed obscenities. There’s no nudity, but one rather explicit scene shows Willie and the underwear-clad Sue in the middle of foreplay before being interrupted by Thurman. Later, Willie tries to unzip her skirt as she is decorating a Christmas tree. Willie also ogles women with large posteriors (the camera leers along with him) and has anal sex with one such lady in a dressing room. A number of women wear immodest clothing.
Willie gets in a fistfight with a bartender when he is caught stealing drinks. He carelessly flings an empty vodka bottle and accidentally shatters a car’s windshield. Bullies torment Thurman, hitting him in the head with a soda can, and giving him a black eye (off-screen) and a wedgie to end all wedgies. They are later repaid when Willie brutally pummels the ringleader. Willie loses his temper several times, throwing a checkerboard across a room and demolishing a Christmas display. Thurman bloodily gashes his hand. Several men are kicked in the crotch. A person gets crushed between two cars. Marcus falls from a ventilation duct and lands on a table, destroying it. An extended gunfight with police ends with a man being shot multiple times in the back.
Crude or Profane Language
As I was making my way to a screening of Bad Santa, a cinema employee quipped, “I hope you don’t mind swear words.” A shocking amount of profanity is used during this 93 minute-long film. There are about 150 f-words and over 60 s-words, along with more than 75 other profanities and crudities. God’s name is profaned over 15 times, mostly in conjunction with the word “d--n.” Jesus’ name gets abused about 25 times and is sometimes egregiously combined with the f-word. A couple of obscene gestures crop up.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Booze and tobacco are constants in Willie’s life. It’s a rare moment when he is not downing grog or puffing away at cigarettes. His mall appearances are no exception. He smokes with kids perched on his lap and sips from a hidden bottle of liquor between requests for presents. He vomits outside of a pub after overindulging. And he passes out on the floor at point. Most other characters imbibe and inhale whenever they are given the chance as well.
Other Negative Elements
Willie are Marcus are (largely) unrepentant thieves. In addition to ripping off department stores, Willie empties a safe at Thurman’s house and steals his father’s car. Several times Willie loses bladder control while decked out in his Santa suit (one shot shows urine dribbling from a wet patch on his trousers onto the carpet). Little people are derisively dubbed “midgets” and are the butt of several cruel jokes. Mentally challenged people are similarly ridiculed. A child grossly sneezes all over Willie’s face. Thurman discusses public defecation. Willie tries to kill himself via carbon monoxide poisoning.
“Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa ... treats the spirit of Christmas as though it were the AIDS virus, and merrily plants a fat, dirty thumb right in Saint Nick’s eye.” So writes John Patterson of the United Kingdom’s Guardian. And he intended those words to be ones of praise. I have no such cheery sentiments, so I’ll put it this way: Bad Santa flips Christmas on its head by celebrating exactly the opposite of everything the holiday is supposed to stand for. Cynicism. Depravity. Obscenity. When it actually acknowledges the true reason for the season—Christ—it does so only to mock Him. This Santa deserves to be eternally banished to the icy nether regions of the North Pole.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Billy Bob Thornton as Willie; Tony Cox as Marcus; Lauren Graham as Sue; Brett Kelly as Thurman; Bernie Mac as Gin; John Ritter as Bob Chipeska
Terry Zwigoff ( )