Bad Santa (2003)

This has the sort of premise that's at once irresistible and appalling: Billy Bob Thornton plays a department store Santa Claus who is in on a scam with a dwarf / elf (Tony Cox) whereby every year they move to a new city, work dead cheap over the holiday season and crack the safe on Christmas Eve for a fast-pay-off, additionally looting presents selected by the dwarf's mail-order bride (Lauren Tom). It's not enough that this Santa is a felon, he has to be every other kind of spiralling human disaster – an alcoholic who pisses himself in costume, a letch who picks up strippers and orders them to shower off their sweat or cruises the 'tall and fat' section to have anal sex with hefty shoppers ('you ain't gonna be able to shit properly for a week'), and – of course – a constant offence to children and parents with his non-stop foul-mouth, cynicism, casual cruelty and dead-end meanness. This makes for a series of funny singleton gags as Thornton deadpans through defiant sleaziness, but of course the film has to deliver redemption - first as a Santa-obsessed pick-up (Lauren Graham, vaguely channeling vintage Candy Clark) becomes a real girlfriend (which does rather involve screaming 'fuck me Santa' in the jacuzzi) and then through a relationship with a lonely fat kid (Brett Kelly) whose embezzler father is 'exploring in the mountains'. The child retains his faith in Santa even though he hasn't had presents for two years and is also being forever abused by skateboard layabouts. At first, Bad Santa exploits the kid - looting his family safe and car, moving into the mansion he shares with a senile grandmother - but, after drunkenly tearing up the lad's advent calendar for chocolates in a moment which goes from funny to truly horrifying, he is shocked into semi-reform, even stirring from a suicide attempt to batter senseless the neighbourhood's chief bully. At the end, it even works out all right.

Conceived by the Coen Brothers and directed by Terry Zwigoff, this gets away with it by relying to a surprising extent on honestly moving work from Kelly, a loser kid who really does circumvent cynicism and jar audience Scrooges into benevolence. The slapstick is maybe less effective than the simple character bits, and the business about the robbery scheme – with Bernie Mac as a security guard who catches on and tries to muscle in – is somewhat overplotty. John Ritter acts like a refugee from a late '60s Disney family comedy, hilariously confronted with behaviour that doesn't square with the way he thinks the world works.

First published in this form here.

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