There have been a lot of Bad movies in the 15 years since its release - Bad Teacher, Bad Moms, Bad Grandpa and so forth - but there’s a reason that Bad Santa started this persistent but wildly uneven trend: it’s very, very good. Picking up the thread that made Ghost World such a misanthropic delight, director Terry Zwigoff crafted a foul, ugly, hilariously funny anti-holiday classic that skillfully got to have its Advent Calendar candy corn and eat it too, thanks to a committed, deeply authentic performance by Billy Bob Thornton and an ensemble of supporting players who transformed what has become a one-liner of a concept - take something traditionally nice, and add as much profanity and filth as possible - into yuletide poetry.
There are three versions of the film - the theatrical cut, an unrated edition and a director’s cut, the differences between which Matt Singer elucidates beautifully in this article on IFC. Zwigoff’s version is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most unrepentantly melancholy of the three; he removed not just comparatively more heartwarming elements like Willie’s (Thornton) efforts to befriend young hapless Thurman (Brett Kelly), but many of its funnier moments because they undercut his specific intention for audiences to question whether or not they should laugh at a foul-mouthed, alcoholic criminal posing as Saint Nick. Unfortunately for him - though less so for us - the prevailing version, rated R or unrated, became so instantly iconic in its unrelenting meanness, so funny in its horrifying depiction of this same person mentoring a kid, much less regularly interacting with children, fucking a woman with a Santa Claus fetish, and generally abusing his body to extreme, disgusting ends, that it more or less immediately joined the canon of must-see holiday films and modern comedy classics, for adults anyway.
Thornton admits to having been drunk for “some” of the filming of the movie, but his performance is so believable that it wouldn’t come as a surprise if he’d had to check himself into a rehab facility afterward: where so many other portraits of boozy self-indulgence (or even self-destruction) seem vaguely romantic or appealing, he is seemingly imploding, withering away, or even actively killing himself with one binge after another. It must be extremely difficult to play a role like that where all of the feelings of a character are so clearly unhappy, but what is more remarkable is how all of that works in concert with what is extraordinary comedy writing: screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, assisted by Zwigoff and producers Joel and Ethan Coen, craft a wicked, incisive movie around Willie about the vagaries of commercialism, the lengths to which greed and depravity will drive some people, and the generally unrelentingly cruelty of the world.
Willie and Marcus (Tony Cox) are crooks, but Marcus’ wife Lois (Lauren Tom) gets in on the act, compiling great lists of merchandise from department stores for them to retrieve each season. Meanwhile, Gin Slagel (the late, great Bernie Mac) discovers their ruse at his boss Bob Chipeska’s (the late and equally great John Ritter) behest, and decides to blackmail them into splitting their earnings with him. And poor Thurman, the literal snot-nosed “C” student who befriends Willie and eventually takes him into his home, is first bullied relentlessly by older kids, then bullied by Willie into learning how to defend himself - with a screaming kick to the nuts.
Kelly gives one of those performances you feel like isn’t a performance at all - it’s just who that kid is, or maybe who you hope he is given the emotional abuse he receives - but the movie recognizes how his, well, stupidity is one of the things that protects him from life’s atomic wedgies. As Bob, the department store manager increasingly unsettled by Willie’s job performance, and too squeamish - and afraid - to stand up to either him and Marcus or Gil, his chief of security, Ritter delivers an hysterical, nuanced performance that feels like authentic, milquetoast middle management - a guy who’s paralyzed himself with too much sensitivity training to distinguish between right and wrong, at least for a department store Santa Claus. And as Gil, Mac expertly plays both sides, a still and certain despot who knows that his directness is intimidating to a spineless white man, even one who’s his boss, and yet he’s another bully, good at his job but less interested in policing bad behavior than figuring out a way to capitalize off of the people he’s apprehended.
Movies like Zwigoff’s aren’t for everyone - there’s only so much meanness that some people can stand - and depending on one’s mood during the holiday season it can be an especially brutal viewing experience. (Tony Cox’s insults as Marcus both manage to be endlessly astute - if never kind - and merciless, the result of an understanding of people, and human nature in general, wielded with the fury and power of a hatchet.) But revisiting the film 15 years later, after the copycats and imitators, Bad Santa still retains its misanthropic power, because of Thornton’s incredible lead performance, a game ensemble cast and a concept that like Santa Claus himself manages to be funny, relevant, and timeless - a big, fat lump of coal in your stocking, always delivered right on time.