Director Terry Zwigoff got his start with an unflinching look at R. Crumb, the innovative and edgy cartoonist responsible for, among other things, the adult comic Fritz the Cat. What made his documentary Crumb so arresting was that the cameras didn?t cut when they were supposed to. We saw the complete breakdowns of Crumb and his family. The moments where most directors would spare both the audience and the subject the pain of seeing things fall apart all at once. In his fiction feature debut, Ghost World, Zwigoff again let his characters fumble, fail and fall, and sometimes not get up, and made the experience as powerful for the audience as it was for his characters. How does he get away with all this unfettered exposure and pain? Humanity. Never before has a director shown how much he cares for people who no one else cares about. No matter how vile or dirty his subjects are, he empathizes with them, creating an instant bond between the audience and the people on the screen. The farther they fall, the more we root for them to get back up, even if we suspect they won?t.
In his latest, Bad Santa, Zwigoff changes things up a little, because for the first 30 minutes, virtually none of the characters have anything even resembling humanity. Unlike his previous efforts, Zwigoff, working from a script by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, lets us wallow in the same alcohol and greed fueled stupor as his main character, Willie (brilliantly repulsive in the hands of Billy Bob Thorton). We follow Willie from his job as a Mall Santa to bars, to the hotel he calls home, then back to the mall and the bars. Willie is about the most pathetic mall Santa one could hope to encounter, drunk, curt, rude, and cursing at the children as well as his dwarf partner Marcus (Tony Fox, who many will remember from Friday). Why would a man so obviously full of anger take a job as a Santa? We soon find it to be a set up; allowing Willie and Marcus a full month to case the department store they work in, and then rob it, thanks to Willie?s chosen trade as a safecracker.
When they finally land in Phoenix to pull off their next job things change for Willie when he encounters Thurman Murman, a geeky, fat kid with an eternally running nose. Thurman?s mother is dead, his father is in jail for embezzlement, and Willie quickly starts milking the kid for all his absent family has to offer. Soon Willie moves into the house (where only a near comatose Grandmother is present), begins driving the incarcerated father?s BMW, and starts wearing silk robes and raiding both the father?s fridge and his safe. Somewhere along the line (in classic Zwigoff fashion there is no ?moment of realization?) Willie starts to care about something again, and that something is Thurman.
There is only one truly brilliant performance in the film, and that is Thorton?s. His Willie is every bit the bastard he needs to be, but Thorton shows just a hint of charm buried underneath all the bile, just enough to keep us on his side. Other performances, though not necessarily well rounded, are just as effective. Brett Kelly is wonderfully pathetic as young Thurman, a kid so desperate for someone to care that he literally pretends to believe in Willie, the pretend Santa. Bernie Mac, in a role so small you have seen virtually all of it in the previews and commercials, is effective as a man who hates himself even more than Willie, but has nicer clothes and a better job to mask his self loathing.
The swan song here is for the late John Ritter. His role is mostly one note, but there?s something in his eyes that suggests his character knows more than he is letting on. Neurotic and jittery, Ritter makes the most out of a role that could have been played by anyone.
But in a strange way the title card that comes up immediately after the film, "In loving memory of John Ritter," works with the story. This is not a jovial family Christmas film; in fact I wouldn?t recommend it to anyone under the age of fifteen. The humor is often crude and crass; the sentiments anything but heart warming. This is the anti-Christmas movie, the one for all of us out there who have had just a day too much of family, pre-Christmas sales, finding parking, of fake joy and forced happiness. This is the bitter underbelly of the Holiday Season, and a wonderful antidote to schmaltzy fare like Elf, where you know exactly what is going to happen, exactly why, and exactly to whom. In Bad Santa we see the faces of the women who fight over stuffed animals, the fist fights that breakout in department store parking lots, and most of all we feel the agony of those who absolutely know that their stocking is going to be filled with coal.