Reeking of stale whiskey and urine, awash in phlegmy torrents of baroque obscenity, Bad Santa positions itself as an act of seasonal sabotage, but as toilet-mouthed, puke-encrusted, and liver-damaged as it may be, the movie’s a traditional Scrooge story at heart. Extravagantly sloppy antihero Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) takes the dress-up gig every year to facilitate a Christmas Eve safecracking. He drinks himself senseless, vomits in back alleys, soils his white beard, pisses his red suit, screams at children, whips out his “fuckstick” in department-store fitting rooms—he would make a disbeliever out of even Will Ferrell’s wide-eyed elf. As Willie himself acknowledges, he’s “living fucking proof there’s no Santa Claus.” Even at its nastiest, though, Bad Santa never rules out the possibility of salvation—no less than old Ebenezer, this pickled loser is, in the end, as eminently redeemable as a gift certificate on December 26.
A little too in love with the comic incongruity of its premise (see Saint Nick booze, curse, sodomize a plus-size woman—OK, we don’t actually see that last one, but the account is plenty graphic), Bad Santa is a one-joke film; to his credit, Thornton embodies that joke with vicious, vaguely insane conviction. Bernie Mac and the late John Ritter, as bewildered store staff, are largely restricted to reaction shots, but there’s lively support from Tony Cox as Willie’s equally profane dwarf accomplice (he’s an angry elf), Lauren Graham as a winsome barmaid with a convenient fetish (“Fuck me Santa fuck me Santa . . . “), and Brett Kelly as a tubby, friendless boy who lives with his senile grandma (poor Cloris Leachman) and proves immune to Willie’s vulgar broadsides. As grump-child bonding scenarios go—and it does, unfortunately, come down to just that—Bad Santa is at least eccentric, somewhere between Big Daddy and Kikujiro: Willie’s clumsy parental gestures include battering the neighborhood bullies and trying to pass off an open-faced, fried-baloney sandwich as a tostada.
Director Terry Zwigoff’s disinterest in visual style is not a cause for concern here: Bad Santa‘s slapdash, borderline-ugly look perfectly fits the depressing, invasive tackiness of a mall in December. It’s a more telling problem that Zwigoff, whose only other fiction feature, Ghost World, refused to consider easy ways out for its misanthropic heroine, doesn’t seem persuaded that there’s any real hope for Willie—with good reason. Bad Santa is very nearly a parody of a redemption tale, but in its present state (one reportedly arrived at via script committee and after much director-studio wrangling), it’s a movie that wants it both ways. While the penultimate scene is dizzy with acrid cynicism, the craven epilogue turns Bad Santa into the very thing it had been mocking all along.