Billy Bob Thornton plays a mall Santa who, along with his "elf" (Tony Cox), robs department stores blind each Christmas Eve. Bad Santa! But if that weren't bad enough, this Santa is an alcoholic misanthropist who, other than booze and anal sex, has nothing to live for. Enter a lonely little boy, the sort you usually see in these "sad sack needs redemption" films, except that he's a stupid, fat, snot-nosed pantywaist.
The gimmick is that the film takes a typical holiday schmaltzy setup and turns it on its ear. In fact, I'd say that Bad Santa's goal is to become the nastiest holiday movie ever made. (Yes, even nastier than Silent Night, Deadly Night.) I have no doubt that many people will find it a cult classic, and I'm sure it will be watched and chuckled over for years to come, especially at hipster Christmas parties.
But all the people lining up to hail it as a "black comic masterpiece" are failing to notice one thing: the film has no substance. It falls into that Todd Solondz trap of being mean without any passion or point. It's an empty kind of mean. The joke of a mall Santa who drinks, swears, leers after women, and unabashedly hates the children who sit on his lap is an easy one. It's also one that wears thin quickly.
Maybe it would have been more subversive if the actor cast in the role was a jolly-looking old grandpa instead of the wasted-away Thornton. Still and all, his character's alcoholism is so depressing that I'm not sure that Zwigoff and his collaborators even see the film as a comedy. The only real laughs I got came from the late John Ritter's pinched expressions.
Otherwise, the film is ugly to look at, it's edited haphazardly, and it makes poor use of holiday and classical music. It's almost an amateur effort. So while I laud Dimension Films (aka Miramax, aka Disney) for releasing such a vicious holiday movie at Christmastime, it's still a big disappointment after Zwigoff's legitimately bittersweet and meaningful comic tragedies Crumb and Ghost World.