As perennial as the winter frost, it’s time once again for click-thirsty publications to cobble together recycled listicles indexing the “Best Christmas Movies Ever.” Get ready for everyone to coyly declare that it’s not sappy stalwarts such as Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life, but rather Die Hard that’s their own, personal favourite Christmas movie. Slip me into a nog-induced coma and wake me up when it’s 2017 and the studios dump all those bad B-horror and action movies in theatres and there’s finally something real to talk about. Bah, humbug, and so on!
Still, in the spirit of Christmastime and all that peace-on-Earth, goodwill-toward-all-men junk, I’ll reluctantly offer my own holiday favourite: Bad Santa. Terry Zwigoff’s 2003 tar-black comedy cast Billy Bob Thornton as soulless alcoholic crook Willie Stokes, whose annual get-rich-quick grift involves posing as a shopping mall Santa Claus and robbing his employer’s safe.
While casing a mall in Phoenix, Willie ends up roped into a quasi-friendship with a husky, curly-haired little boy with the unlikely name Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly). Thurman, or “The Kid,” as Willie calls him, is too innocent to recognize what a hopeless ingrate Willie is. And so, he offers Thornton’s deadbeat alcoholic something to believe in, something that exists beyond his own base selfishness. Underneath the abounding vulgarity and wall-to-wall jokes about anal sex, Bad Santa is sweet, even sappy, at once subverting and embracing the clichés of the Christmas movie.
Given the current boom in “bad” movies – Bad Teacher, Bad Moms, Bad Words, Bad Grandpa – and other films that trade images of stock character types behaving badly (the recent Robert De Niro vehicle Dirty Grandpa springs to mind), it’s little shock that a film as rare and singular as Bad Santa be subjected to the grind of sequelization. What’s impressive is that Bad Santa 2 emerges out the other side of the mincer with the charms of the original left more or less intact.
Picking up a decade after the original, Bad Santa 2 finds Thornton’s Willie back in the darkly comic marshes of his own boozy depression. The sequel opens on him being canned from his job as a valet parker for ogling a breastfeeding mother, then segues immediately into a series of botched suicide attempts (e.g. sticking his head into the oven, only to realize it’s electric). Willie is still stalked by The Kid (now a full-grown man, but no less hilariously dim) and still desperate to sustain the sort of meaningless, booze-drenched existence that qualifies only technically as a life.
And so he hooks up with his former partner in crime, the double-crossing little person Marcus (Tony Cox) and travels from Phoenix to Chicago to rip off a charity. Given that Bernie Mac and John Ritter, the original’s standout supporting players, have passed away, Bad Santa 2 colours in the edges with so-so comic performances by Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks and Party Down’s Ryan Hansen. Kathy Bates offers a more bravura turn as Willie’s estranged mom, herself a deadbeat of the highest order.
Bad Santa 2 is a difficult film to write about, if only because its countless laugh-out-loud lines can’t be republished in a family newspaper. The sequel cranks up both the obscenity (sometimes it feels like Thornton’s character is a talking doll spitting out one or another expletive-rich catchphrase on command) and the sap, taking pains to hammer home the just-barely-feel-good message of the original: that families come in all forms, and that our affections sometimes exceed our best efforts to suppress them, or drown them in bar-rail whisky. What’s more compelling is the way the film feeds into this new trend of “bad” cinema. (Tom Scharpling, host of the weekly comedy podcast The Best Show, refers to this cycle of films as the “Dirty-verse,” a phrase I’m inclined to nip, if only because it’s so funny.)
The problem with the Dirty-verse movies is that they indulge spectacles of misbehaviour at a safe distance. The moms in Bad Moms aren’t actually bad moms (distant, emotionally or physically abusive, and so on). They just let off steam by indulging adolescent fantasies of unhinged house parties. Ditto Bad Teacher, in which Cameron Diaz’s pot-smoking, middle-school educator ends up learning to love – who else? – herself. And how dirty is De Niro’s Dirty Grandpa, really? He masturbates and drinks and creepily hits on college co-eds. But it’s all in the service of living life to the fullest and raging and cursing and beer-ponging against the dying of the light.
The Bad Santa films offer an inversion of this formula. Willie’s badness doesn’t necessitate a dubstep-soundtracked house party, or a spring break sojourn to Daytona Beach. Even his liquor-and-vomit-stained Santa Claus custom provides only slight ironic counterpoint. Willie is a genuinely bad person. To paraphrase one of Marcus’s more perceptive lines in the original, every single thing about him is ugly. It’s not just that he’s abominable by Santa standards. He’s a bad man.
Still, there’s that faint flicker of humanity that glints somewhere inside the darkness, like the last flame on an advent candle somehow weathering a brutal winter storm. Willie may be drunk and self-loathing and lecherous. He may call the birth of Jesus the “ejaculate conception.” But once, or twice, in his otherwise worthless life, he tries in his own misbegotten way to be good. Because it’s the holidays, dammit.
With all the horror in the world, it’s not just sappy or sentimental but legitimately reassuring that such faint flickers, such whispers of decency, reside deep inside even the worst men. Willie may not have a heart of gold. But he’s got a heart of bloody, barely thumping meat, same as the rest of us. And in this bitter season of unceasing, frostbitten darkness, it’s heart enough.
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