Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Bad Santa

"I beat the shit out of some kids today. But it was for a purpose. It made me feel good about myself." -- Willie Stokes, Bad Santa

It's a week early, but I've got a lot of cooking to do, so here's my top pick for Christmas movies this year. If Christmas is all about hanging out with family, you have to do some recalibration of traditions so that it's inclusive instead of oppressive. There are no little kids in my house, but there are late teenagers. You think a teenager will tolerate sitting through It's a Wonderful Life? It wouldn't be generous in spirit to force that on them. And, honestly? Our Christmas day tradtional movie as a family never was that flick anyhow. It always was, and remains, The Godfather. (Yes, seriously.) The Godfather and Godfather II still plays in one of the rooms during the day, with people popping in and out to catch a certain scene or two as they mill about, eating or taking a break from doing the dishes. But at night, when the extended family has gone and we just want to kick back, cozy up, digest it all down, and continue to eat and drink through the night? Bad Santa is what we sit around and watch together.

This movie is raunchy and lowbrow. At times, it's disgusting. Instead of bells ringing, there are gunshots ringing out. And yet, in recent years, when I think of the King of Christmas, it's Billy Bob Thornton who's managed to supersede the image of Jimmy Stewart.

The original version of this movie was written by the Coen brothers, because they wanted to do a movie about a guy who changed. As I mentioned before, there are echoes of George Bailey (distant, sullied, dirty-mouthed echoes) in Billy Bob's character, Willie. Probably a closer relative is the Grinch. The Grinch was a thief, after all. (I'm not quite sure Grinch was an alcoholic perv with a thing for doing fat women in the ass, but Geisel never really elaborated.) Anyhow, the Coens remained as producers as the script was re-written, presumably to a much nastier degree.

The premise is clever enough. Willie is a safecracker, and every Christmas season, he and his working partner, Marcus, get a gig at a department store as a Santa and elf. Then, come Christmas Eve, they rob the bejeezus out of the store and part ways until the next holiday season. Only problem is, Willie takes self-loathing to previously unheard-of levels, and his drinking, swearing, fucking and insipid behavior are putting their gig in jeopardy. John Ritter is the store manager who's disgusted by Willie, and Bernie Mac is the no-bullshit security dude who's on to them.

But what's a Christmas movie without a kid? Bad Santa somehow unearthed the alarmingly deadpan Brett Kelly to play the kid. He may or may not be challenged, and he's the perfect antidote for the precocious, precious little snots we usually get. Willie gets himself tangled up with this kid and the kid's advent calendar and his compulsion to make sandwiches. Then, somehow, between telling the kid to fuck off and accepting a wooden pickle, the kid does change Willie. The kid unwittingly manages to offer some redemption for Willie's dog-shit soul.

At the outset, Willie pronounces himself an eating, drinking, shitting, fucking Santa Claus. I can't imagine anyone but Billy Bob pulling this role off. He is by turns pathetic and repugnant, a big old fucked-up, drunk ball of slyly sympathetic symptoms of our culture rot. When he's getting sneezed at in the face with chocolate ice-cream by a brat, you can barely imagine a more sorrowful, masochistic mess. And yet, when Lauren Graham is looking at him, sleepy-eyed, or when the kid is quizzing him about the reindeer stables, you kinda, sorta have to love him.

Okay. Not everyone could love him. And that's part of the charm of the movie. Remember those candy cane cocktails I told you about and how sweet they go down for the daytime drinking? There comes a point every season when you really have gone to hell with the "merriment" and all your clothes stink of gin and you just kinda relate. Not everyone in this world has neatly folded chenille sweaters and faux-shearling-lined leather gloves and a pristine background and optimistic outlook to pass along to their well-fed, clean brood of smiling children. Those of us on the shady-to-dismal spectrum of humanity deserve a few cheap and cynical laughs around the holidays to keep us from slipping into a spiraling abyss as rank as Willie's.

And this picture is for people like us. Well, us and anyone else without a candy-cane of saccharine sweetness shoved up their ass. So go ahead and laugh at the crassness, you can always blame it on the talking walnut. And oh yeah. Merry fuckin' Christmas.

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