Last week, I said that In Bruges was the very opposite of ‘Christmas magic’. Even though I didn’t believe it was really a Christmas film, but I’m continuing that trend with this film, one that definitely is a Christmas film, but is also the very opposite of holly jolly.
Not everyone is indeed the biggest fan of Christmas, and I can empathise with those people, it is not always a happy season, for some it is a very melancholy one, and it is only right that some portrayals reflect that, so I understand the appeal of Bad Santa, as somewhat of a satire on the holiday and the films it spawns.
I also know that this film has gained sizable cult popularity in the years since its release, even spawning a (poorly-received) sequel years later, but I’d never actually seen it until recently, its appeal has always intrigued me, and my sense of humour can be very dark, so I thought it was time I gave it a whirl.
Bad Santa follows the exploits of Willie and Marcus (Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox, respectively) a pair of con men who infiltrate department stores as Santa and his elf. Willie’s eroding mental health and attitude threatens to derail their entire operation, as he unsuspectingly befriends a strange, bullied kid (Brett Kelly).
Comedy is one of the hardest things to get right in a film. Sure, it’s hard to put together an engaging drama too, but comedy is all based on taste. Your sense of humour might differ from someone else’s, that’s the nature of comedy, and so making one with broad appeal is very difficult.
Personally, I’d say my palate of humour is fairly broad, I like a lot of surreal, imaginative stuff like Monty Python, but I’m also partial to the dark comic stylings of George Carlin and Bill Hicks, along with a lot in between. I understand more than most how humour is subjective and therefore it makes critiquing comedy more difficult than other genres. It is most difficult when you find yourself not really connecting with it, but also not hating it, and that’s the conundrum I find myself in here.
I’m not sure whether I ‘didn’t get’ Bad Santa as I saw what it was going for and it admittedly pulls it off very well, it just left me rather cold and apathetic to it. It raised a few chuckles at some moments, but it didn’t really grab me.
Some of that might be to do with not having a character you can really latch onto and empathise with. The closest you really get to that is The Kid (as he is credited) but even then he comes across as annoyingly naive instead of endearingly so. Everyone else in the plot is just a terrible person who you want to fail. I know this is by design in a film like this, but it doesn’t help an audience when all of the characters are abrasive, it leaves us with no one to root for.
In a situation like the one this film sets up, ideally, you’d want your lead players to be at least slightly redeemable, and the people they’re robbing from look like the worse people, but in this film everyone is deplorable, so even if what you’re watching elicits laughs, you don’t feel a connection to the story because you have no one to get behind.
There is an attempt to craft a redemption arc for Willie, but it falls flat because he’s still, well, an asshole. Even when he’s being ‘nice’ (that is to say, nice by his standards) he still comes across as a miserable, boorish prat with absolutely zero likeability.
As I say though, it did offer a few laughs along with way. Sometimes The Kid’s obliviousness is funny when it isn’t grinding on your nerves, and there are a few chuckles to be had from Willie and Marcus’ exchanges, and a few madcap side characters, but overall, I found myself not fully engaging with the film.
I do try and avoid the ‘could be better, could be worse’ tact of reviewing, as they’re rarely much fun to read, and even less fun to write, but I feel like this is the only way to really describe my feelings towards Bad Santa, I admire what was attempted by it, and I think there is a lot of mileage in satirising Christmas films, and lots of opportunity for dark comedy, but I don’t think this film quite got there.
I did like the performances in the film, however. I think they really tried to make the most of the material. Especially Billy Bob Thornton, who has been remarkably consistent throughout his career. This film came not too long after his acclaimed turn in Monster’s Ball, during one of the hottest periods of his career, we don’t see as much of him now, sadly.
The performances of Tony Cox, as Willie’s small-person accomplice and Brett Kelly as the oblivious Kid, should also be commended. The role of Marcus, in particular, is a rare example of a leading part for a small-person, and Cox does a commendable job; and Kelly, despite his characters more annoying tendencies, steers clear of the usual child actor trappings.
You should never be afraid to say that something isn’t for you. Even if you can see what the creator was trying to do, and I do admire the effort, I just can’t say that it gripped me. The right ingredients were there, they just weren’t put together in an exciting enough manner. I can see the appeal, but I don’t think it’s one I’ll revisit again anytime soon.