In the run-up to the big tinselly bang, our writers check out some celluloid classics. Billy Bob Thornton’s nasty St Nick is back in cinemas – will Ashley Davies be watching?
What and why: You know when you’re watching a film with your parents and there’s a small but very real possibility that somebody’s about to shoot your father? That’s what happened when I saw Bad Santa for the first time.
We were in a cinema in Manila – where my folks were living at the time – and people near us were chatting and playing with their mobile phones. This widespread breach of cinema etiquette in the Philippines was known at the time to trigger the eruption of fights that occasionally ended up with someone getting a bullet.
Caring not for the risk, my dad huffed over and grumpily told the noisy lot to hush their cakeholes (he’s slightly deaf and he’s buggered if he’s wasting his money on a film he can’t hear). The rest of us braced ourselves for some kind of bloodbath. Fortunately, this never came about, but the tension clearly affected my judgement, because I remember really enjoying this film first time round.
“The bile and resentment with which Thornton says, ‘What do you want?’ to each child who sits on his piss-soaked lap is wonderfully performed.”
In case you haven’t seen it, Bad Santa is about an alcoholic arsehole, Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), and his pal Marcus (Tony Cox), whose criminal racket involves getting jobs as Santa and his elf in department stores. They get to know the shops, then rob them blind. Santa is a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work and acknowledges that his soul is “dog shit”, but still somehow manages to pull a cute barmaid, Sue, played by Lauren Graham of Gilmore Girls fame, because she has a Santa kink.
In the store he encounters a fat, lonely boy, who has an all-round tragic life. For some reason, The Kid (Brett Kelly), as he’s known, forms an attachment to Santa, and he – and to a lesser extent Sue – help steer this revolting dickhead towards something we’re asked to believe is redemption.
Rated or dated: This is a comedy, and there certainly are a lot of laughs. The bile and resentment with which Thornton says: “What do you want?” to each child who sits on his piss-soaked lap is wonderfully performed, and in many ways his disregard for decorum or anyone’s feelings is hilarious, whether that’s eating a chicken drumstick while sitting on the loo of a house he’s broken into, or throwing the leftover snack into the bowl when it won’t flush.
And the late John Ritter’s performance as the politely suspicious department store manager is beautifully understated. Lovely work.
Buuuut, there’s a real nastiness at the heart of this film that makes me seriously uncomfortable. There are two separate references to Santa’s penchant for aggressive anal sex (such as when you overhear him, during an impromptu sexual encounter, saying: “You ain’t gonna shit right for a week.” I mean, that’s horrible, right?).
And there’s a scene in which he repeatedly shoves his crotch up against the bottom of a clearly underage teenage girl while pretending to show her how to play a pinball-type game. Horrible. I expect better of a film on which Joel and Ethan Coen were executive producers.
We’re supposed to laugh at his cruel treatment of The Kid, but it’s just too brutal, and there are moments when some of the child actors and extras look genuinely distressed when he’s lashing out. I can’t bear that.
And the ‘redemption’ begins after he beats up The Kid’s bully – yup, he assaults a child – and realises that maybe he is worth something after all, largely thanks to two innocents having faith in him. Hmmm.
I also really hate the racist depiction of Marcus’s wife, Lois (Lauren Tom) – a materialistic south-east Asian woman with a shrill voice and a sour look forever etched on her cruel face.
So yeah, I know it’s not a documentary, and there are some sniggery elements, but me and my po-face must regretfully declare Bad Santa to be… DATED.
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Ashley Davies is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor and the human behind animal satire website thelabreport.co.uk.