Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Santa From Hell

“I’m an eating, drinking, shitting, fucking Santy Claus,” says Willie, an alcoholic, thieving, self-loathing department store Santa, as he sits at a bar.

Sue, the adorable bartender says, “Prove it.”

Cut to the parking lot, where we hear Sue chanting, “Fuck me Santa, fuck me Santa, fuck me Santa, fuck me Santa,” as she bounces up and down on Willie’s Yule log in the car.

That’s the kind of Christmas movie Bad Santa is, and if you haven’t seen it and this intrigues you, do yourself a favor – do not watch it on broadcast television or it’ll be a different movie entirely.

Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is a safe-cracking thief who has an arrangement with fellow thief Marcus (Tony Cox), a black dwarf whose Asian wife Lois (Lauren Tom) is an astonishingly greedy, materialistic woman who cares about nothing but the loot Willie and Marcus can shower her with after their yearly Christmas department store heist. Every Christmas, they go to work in a department store with Willie playing Santa and Marcus his elf. Once employed by the store, they go about robbing it, making off with the money in the safe and all the merchandise on Lois’s long and demanding list.

Marcus is the brains of the operation, but only because Willie is a bleary-eyed drunk. He’s got a really, really bad case of alcoholism. He drinks to numb his feelings of worthlessness, his complete and utter hatred of himself. It’s often said that most alcoholics will not become determined to turn their lives around until they’ve hit rock bottom. Willie hit rock bottom a long time ago and set up residence there. He’s now the mayor. Marcus does not like working with Willie, and he likes it less each year. Willie is unreliable, a constant complainer, and ... well, he’s just not very good company.

“You're an emotional fucking cripple,” Marcus tells Willie. “Your soul is dog shit. Every single fucking thing about you is ugly.” And every word of that is true. But as bad off as he is, Willie is not hopeless. He is still salvageable. And his salvation comes in the form of a morbidly obese little boy named Thurman Merman.

When we meet Thurman, he is walking from the bus stop to the mall with snot running from his nose. He can’t even walk that short distance without being picked on by bullies. He is a magnet for ridicule, and it’s obvious by his reaction to this bullying – which is no reaction at all – that none of this is new to him. He just waddles on, seemingly unaffected as the boys call him names like “dipshit” and “moron,” not even blinking as the leader of the pack says, “Dumbass, why don’t you turn around?” and throws an empty soda can that hits Thurman in the back of the head. He doesn’t even flinch. He has internalized his pain so deeply that it doesn’t even show anymore. Thurman does not need to utter a word to let us know that, even at his young age, he is a battered bundle of hurt. This is as much Thurman’s story as it is Willie’s.

His destination is Willie, the department store Santa in the mall. By the time he gets there, a drunk Willie has had chocolate and snot sneezed all over his beard by a little boy and his foot has been stomped by an unhappy little girl. Children do not react well to Willie’s crankiness. While perched precariously on Santa’s knee, Thurman makes an observation about the droopy, dirty beard.

“It’s not real,” he says.

“No shit,” Willie says. “It was real, but you see, I got sick and all the hair fell out, so I had to wear this fuckin’ thing.”

“How’d you get sick?”

“I loved a woman who wasn’t clean.”

“Mrs. Santa?”

“No, it was her sister.”

Willie is trying to be offensive. He wants to scare this irritating fat kid away and be done with him. But Thurman is undaunted. Without missing a beat, he asks his next question with the same deadpan delivery: “What’s it like at the North Pole?”

“Like the suburbs.”

“Which one?”

“Apache Junction. What the fuck do you care? Now get off my lap. You sit there like a fuckin’ retard.”

“You are really Santa, right?”

Unable to believe the kid is still asking questions, Willie says, “No, I’m an accountant. I wear this fuckin’ thing as a fashion statement, all right?”

Thurman says, “Okay.” He is guileless and trusting, but those traits do not seem to come from stupidity. They come from a heartbreaking need to believe someone, anyone, to be able to trust someone, rely on someone. Anyone. We soon learn that Thurman has no one.

Willie encounters Thurman again in the mall parking lot. The boy interrupts a fight Willie is having with a man he encountered in the bar. Willie drives him home to find that he lives in a nice house in an upscale neighborhood. We learn that Thurman’s dad is “on an adventure exploring mountains” and he won’t be back until next year. And Mommy? “She lives in god’s house with Jesus and Mary and the ghost and the long-eared donkey and Joseph and the talking walnut.” Thurman is so immersed in his own world – the world to which he’s had to retreat to escape the pain and isolation of his life – that it never occurs to him that Willie might not know what the hell he’s talking about. Thurman is taken care of by Grandma, a dotty old lady who apparently does only two things – sleep and make sandwiches. No one else lives in the house. No one at all. Willie’s next question is, “Does your daddy have a safe?”

Willie moves in, drives the car in the garage, and barely tolerates Thurman’s endless questions. The boy follows him everywhere, clings to him like a piece of lint, comes to see him again at the department store. On his second trip from the bus stop to the mall, the same bullies accost Thurman again, this time pulling his undershorts all the way up to his chest in an epic wedgie. The look Willie gives him when he sees this is at once hilarious and crushing. It’s a look that says, How can you possibly be so pathetic? And it’s coming from a man who is so pathetic he can barely stand to live in his own skin. Pity gets the better of Willie and he begins to soften ever so slightly toward Thurman.

Meanwhile, the store’s manager – a stammering, timid, easily embarassed man named Bob Chipeska – is suspicious of Willie and Marcus. But especially Willie. Shortly after hiring them, Chipeska finds Willie having sex with a heavyset woman in a dressing room. He watches their feet under the door as Willie says, “Yeah, baby! Yeah, baby! You ain’t gonna shit right for a week!” When Chipeska nervously tries to let Willie and Marcus go, Willie tells him to reconsider and threatens to stir up a backlash.

“What are you talking about?” Chipeska asks.

“I'm talkin’ about firin’ a little black midget. A colored, African-American small person. That's what I'm talkin’ about. I'm talkin’ about your face all over goddamn USA Today, that's what I'm talkin’ about. I'm talking about 150 of these little motherfuckers all over the sidewalk out there, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Little picket signs, chantin’ and ravin’, and usin’ bullhorns and shit like that. Screamin’ and hollerin’ your name out. Unfair practices. Get me?”

It works, but Chipeska is still suspicious enough to go to the store’s detective, a laid-back, orange-slurping man named Gin. He explains the problem and asks Gin if he can find something on these guys. Gin is happy to oblige and begins to look into Santa and his elf. He learns where Willie is staying, learns that Thurman’s father is doing time in prison for white collar crime and that no one lives at the house but Grandma and Thurman. Gin puts the pieces together, figures out what Willie and Marcus are up to, and sits them down for a talk. He says he doesn’t want to take over, doesn’t want to be involved at all. He just wants half of the take. Marcus argues, tries to negotiate, but Gin is intractable. Half.

This setback sends Willie into an even faster downward spiral. He shows up for work falling-down drunk, wets his pants, and scares away a crowd of kids and parents. Later, Thurman finds Willie sitting in the car in the garage, engine running, a hose going from the exhaust pipe into the car window. A groggy Willie gives Thurman a letter to give to the police when they come to retrieve his dead body. And then Willie notices that the boy has black eye. Cut to Willie in his Santa suit beating the crap out of the lead bully who’s been tormenting Thurman. “You know, I think I turned a corner,” Willie tells Marcus later. “I beat the shit outta some kids today. But it was for a purpose. Made me feel good about myself. It was like I did something constructive with my life, or somethin', I don’t know. Like I accomplished something.”

Willie is right – he has turned a corner. Thurman desperately needs someone to believe in and Willie desperately needs someone to believe in him. Somehow, these two miserable, pain-wracked human beings have managed to find each other. Along with Thurman, Willie has also found Sue, the bartender with the Santa fetish. It was the fetish that first attracted Sue to him, but she seems to see something under Willie’s disgusting exterior that makes her stick around. Gin continues to complicate things – and later, Marcus complicates them further as the story gets even darker.

I often hear how funny Bad Santa is – and it is, that’s true – but no one ever talks about how painful this movie is, and how difficult it is to watch that first time. With its abundance of profanity and its dark tone, it appears to be the ultimate anti-Christmas Christmas movie. But there’s a lot more going on here than foul language and anal sex jokes. I can’t think of any other comedy that contains as much genuine emotional pain and personal anguish as Bad Santa. Willie and Thurman are vastly different characters inhabiting two worlds that could not be more dissimilar. But they are both raw, emotionally crippled, hobbled by their views of themselves and the way others view them, and both are in desperate need of help that they are incapable of asking for.

The first time I saw the movie, I was expecting a raucous comedy. Instead, I was bludgeoned with misery. I recognized that what I was seeing was funny on a certain level, but it was just too painful to laugh at, too raw to enjoy. At first. In part, it was the supporting cast that helped me to get past that pain and start laughing. Their reactions to Willie drew me in. But mostly, it was Terry Zwigoff’s sensitive, astute direction that makes it work. Stories about emotionally crippled misfits are Zwigoff’s specialty. He directed the deeply disturbing documentary Crumb (1994), about the life and family of underground comic book artist Robert Crumb, and the funny, effective movies Ghost World (2001) and Art School Confidential (2006). This movie could have been unredeemably offensive, throwing its obscenities at us for nothing more than their shock value. In Zwigoff’s hands, it is a surprisingly affecting character study, an abrasive comedy that attacks our current celebration of Christmas from a couple of different directions at once -- our greedy, insatiable materialism and our neglect of those among us who are in need, not necessarily of material goods or like food or housing but of emotional nourishment and shelter. In the process, it plays a trick on us – a pleasing trick, but a trick nonetheless. More on that in a moment.

The supporting cast is the Christmas movie equivalent of a box of sparkling ornaments. Lauren Graham, who plays Sue, is such a delightful and appealing blend of wholesome naughtiness that it’s rather amazing that she hasn’t had bigger and more frequent roles in movies. In his last film performance before his sudden death just two months prior to the release of Bad Santa, John Ritter stands out as the milquetoast store manager Bob Chipeska. He’s a squirming, twitching mess, and if given to the wrong actor, the role might have damaged the movie by being overly broad and cartoonish. But Ritter, whose strength was always physical comedy, pulls it off with great ease. His scenes with Gin, the store detective – beautifully underplayed by the late Bernie Mac – are memorable. As Marcus's wife Lois, Lauren Tom is unapologetically grating and despicable. The great Cloris Leachman’s performance in the small role of Grandma is uncredited, but she manages to make the empty-headed old woman not only funny, but somehow sweet and sad. But the performances of the three central actors are what make this movie tick.

Brett Kelly’s expressionless, deadpan performance as Thurman Merman is a small Christmas miracle. Rather than acting and emoting, he seems to be trying to hide from us, to hunker down and go unnoticed through life. It’s a quiet little gem of a performance that helps makes this movie as sad as it is funny, as heartbreaking as it is obscene. As Marcus, Tony Cox is completely convincing and explosively funny. I would advise you to try not to have any food or drink in your mouth when he delivers some of his lines. He has one exchange with Bernie Mac that made me laugh so hard, I missed the next few minutes of dialogue. Willie has shown up for work in a drunken stupor. Gin, the store detective, tells Marcus, “Get him outta here. I’ll go smooth things over with Chipeska. Tell him food poisonin’ or somethin’.”

Marcus says, “What do you mean, get him outta here?”

“Take him to the car.”

“In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a motherfuckin’ dwarf. So unless you got a forklift handy, maybe you should lend a hand, hm?”

“Special treatment ‘cause you’re handicapped. You’re all the same.”

“Special treatment? I’m three foot fuckin’ tall, you asshole! It’s a matter of physics! Draw me a sketch of how I get him to the car, huh?”

“Bitch, bitch, bitch.”

“Sketch it up, you fuckin’ moron! Fuckin’ Leonardo Da Vinci.”

“Whatchoo call me, thigh-high?”

“I called you a fuckin’ guinea homo from the fifteenth fuckin’ century, you dickhead.”

“I could stick you up my ass, small-fry.”

“Yeah? You sure it ain’t too sore from last night?”

“You got some lip on you, midget.”

“Well, these lips were on your wife’s pussy last night. Why don’t you dust that thing off once in a while, asshole?”

After “a fuckin’ guinea homo from the fifteenth fuckin’ century,” I was lost, laughing until I had tears in my eyes. Who knew “Leonardo Da Vinci” could be such a funny pejorative.

The star at the top of this Christmas tree is Billy Bob Thornton. As I’ve pointed out in another review, I think this guy is among the very best movie actors working right now. He is able to convey volumes with the smallest touches. He makes Willie tragically human. The pain in his face and voice is palpable. We never learn exactly how Willie got to the depths in which we find him, but it’s all there on Thornton’s face, in his posture and gait, in his voice. Thornton creates a walking, talking, human wound, and he maintains that even while he’s being gut-bustingly funny.

As mentioned earlier, Bad Santa plays a trick on us, a little sleight of hand. One of the tag lines used to promote the movie when it was released in 2003 was, “Get naughty this holiday season.” It was sold as a bitter, foul-mouthed, anti-Christmas Christmas movie, and it delivered on that promise. But at the same time, it fooled us by being everything we expect of a Christmas movie. Under all the rank, obnoxious behavior and language lies a familiar story of two aching lost souls who manage to find a glimmer of hope and redemption at Christmas, who realize that they are worthy of love and acceptance after all, despite all they’ve been told about themselves – despite all they’ve told themselves about themselves.