It seems appropriate that Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa exists in more than one version, and that there’s disagreement over which one is the “real” one, and that it hurt the feelings of pretty much everyone involved with making it, because this is one seriously black-hearted, mean-spirited, genuinely misanthropic piece of work. Indeed, the secret to whatever success it has enjoyed, 15 years after its original November 2003 release, is that there’s nothing false about the film’s seething hatred of humanity.
Zwigoff was from the cartooning world. When he made his jump into narrative features with 2001's Ghost World, Hollywood was still struggling to figure out what to do with comic book movies, and there was room for a sly subversive treat like his adaptation of the Daniel Clowes graphic novel to slip through. He cast the film beautifully, and Steve Buscemi may have given one of his very best performances as a type that could have easily been either too creepy or too sad or too dark in the hands of the wrong filmmaker. Zwigoff seemed like the perfect person, then, to take on the challenge of a story about a career criminal, his dwarf sidekick and their foolproof holiday scam.
Who knew that Billy Bob Thornton was this particular flavor of funny? One of the ways that Bad Santa executive producers Joel and Ethan Coen are undeniable geniuses has been with their left-of-center casting choices over the years. They are confident that actors are funny, even when the actors aren’t completely sure about it. They have a keen eye and ear for the little rhythms and details that make someone authentically hilarious. The first time they heard the voice of Holly Hunter, a frequent Coen collaborator, they must have been struck by a case of the nervous giggles. Same with John Goodman or John Turturro. I think they gave Gabriel Byrne his single best film role (with 1990's Miller's Crossing) because they realized exactly how to write the music in his Irish lilt.
With Bad Santa, where they were hands-on producers during the early part of production, the master stroke came when someone realized that Billy Bob was the guy for the part. Bill Murray could have made a version of this movie that would have made $150 million more at the box office, no doubt about it, but it would not be as funny as the alchemy that comes from putting Thornton in that suit, with one kid after another on his lap. He asks one little girl what she wants, and she shyly whispers, “A drum set.” His line to her is funny, but what makes the scene so great is the look he gives her that is equal parts horror at the thought of waking up to her drumming, irritation at the impulse that would make a kid ask for that present and delight at the thought of her dad’s horror and irritation. He’s a shit, and he’s one of the greatest of all time. He means it. There’s no heart of gold here, and he’s not about to crack and warm up. These adorable kids bounce right off of him. He could not care any less about whatever charms they might possess.
Bad Santa’s the darkest of the bunch, and yet when it finally does pull out of what feels like a death spiral, it feels earned precisely because of how much bite there is in the film’s first half. Willie is a degenerate, and not a cuddly one. He is awful to everyone in his life, and he seems to exist in a free-floating cloud of red, rolling fury. He relies on Marcus (Tony Cox) for his very survival, but he refuses to let anything Marcus says or does actually influence his behavior. Willie knows he’s going to destroy everything at some point. He’s counting on it, waiting for it, expecting it. He moves through life like a dog that’s been kicked so many times that he leads with his chin, daring you to do it again.
Great comedies need to pack the cast, and Bad Santa is full of greatness. While Billy Bob is a revelation in terms of comic timing, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Tony Cox is great as Marcus. For many little people, once they work, they work often. Hollywood has always had plenty of novelty roles for little people, and occasionally, they’ve even done better than that. Not often enough, but occasionally, and Cox is one of those actors who always seemed to know when he had an opportunity to make something more of a role. He’d made over 30 films by the time he was cast here, and he’d done plenty of television as well. The Farrelly brothers made especially good use of him in Me, Myself & Irene. But it was here, as the filthy yin to Thornton’s diseased yang, that Cox truly threw the best heat of his career. Marcus is amazing, standing toe to toe with Willie, raining verbal hell on him at every turn while somehow propping him up just enough to make it through their plan.
Lauren Graham, who seemed to make a lovely career as a great guest star on every show on TV for a decade, is both delightfully carnal and authentically interesting as Sue, a bartender who has a kink for Santas. Her first scene with Thornton is laugh-out-loud funny and, truth be told, kind of hot. That’s all her. As the film progresses and Willie struggles with what he’s going to do, she makes the case for being the kind of woman who would make him want to be a better person, and it gives the film a very real sense of stakes because it seems inevitable that he’s going to fail her. Octavia Spencer shows up to kill with a few lines, Cloris Leachman contributes the kind of precision derangement that is her specialty and lots of familiar comedy faces like Alex Borstein, Lauren Tom, Matt Walsh and Bryan Callen all show up for one or two moments.
If previous generations added films like It’s a Wonderful Life to the Christmas canon, then it seems appropriate that modern American holiday comedies seem to be wired directly into the toxic side.
The thing that ultimately pays off all of the film’s darkest, bleakest jokes is the relationship between Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) and Willie, whom the kid truly believes is Santa Claus. Kelly’s performance is perfect, which is a testament to Kelly, to Zwigoff and to Thornton, who manages to believably play the slow thaw Willie feels toward this weird little kid. Sometimes, Hollywood goes overboard casting cute movie kids, but Zwigoff went the other direction. He found a delightfully oddball little dude and then leaned into it. Kelly is the perfect foil for Thornton, a blank slate that can stand there and absorb whatever Thornton throws at him. It doesn’t matter how mean Willie gets, Thurman just smiles and keeps going.
I’ve long believed that one of the ways you can really judge a filmmaker is by looking at the way they direct children. You can’t really fake it. You have to put in the time and the care to get something real out of them, even from the best child performers, and Kelly’s work shows that Zwigoff knew how crucial it was to get that part of the film right. I love the way Thurman's belief in Willie is so much stronger than Willie’s belief in himself, and the way Thornton truly seems to resent it when his black little heart starts to beat once more. The kid is in such desperate need of family that he makes Willie start to believe that there’s something possible in this unlikely, damaged connection he has with Sue and with Thurman, the sheer force of the kid’s desire making it come true.
I’ve long believed that one of the ways you can really judge a filmmaker is by looking at the way they direct children.
The eventual director’s cut of the film by Zwigoff was the shortest of the three, and it feels like all three cuts share the same structural issues. Zwigoff’s is the funniest of the bunch, and it’s clear that his sense of humor was motivated more by character than by how filthy a take was. When the film works best, it works because it’s willing to examine the swiss-cheese soul of this low-rent criminal who is willing to take advantage of everyone, including a trusting little boy. When it stumbles, it stumbles because it gets clumsy with the plot mechanics. That’s fine. That’s not what Zwigoff does best. At his best, he has a keen eye for the worst parts of human nature, and a forgiving heart in the way he frames those things he captures. Bad Santa seems like a holiday film only he could have made—a dick pic in a reindeer frame, rude and vulgar and messy.