The opening scene of the greatest Christmas movie of all time begins in a bar on a winter evening. The camera tracks past a lighted tree and wreaths and through a crowd of wealthy revelers in holiday sweaters. As Frédéric Chopin’s “Nocturne No. 2 in E-Flat Minor, Op. 9 No. 2” hums along, they chatter happily, exchanging all precious gifts and things. At the end of the bar is Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton), looking anemic in a Santa suit and puffing on a cigarette. He sits alone, calling out baldly for another drink. We hear Willie in voiceover:
I’ve been to prison once. I’ve been married, twice. I was once drafted by Lyndon Johnson and had to live in shit-ass Mexico for two-and-a-half years for no reason. I’ve had my eye socket punched in, a kidney taken out, and I got a bone-chip in my ankle that’s never gonna heal. I’ve seen some pretty shitty situations in my life, but nothing has ever sucked more ass than this.
Each winter, Willie takes up work as a department store Santa, and on Christmas Eve he and his foul-mouthed elf partner Marcus (played by the 3-foot-6 Tony Cox) crack the store safe for a massive one-day payload. The problem (and the comedy) is that Willie—an alcoholic, a sex addict, and the William Safire of profanity—must endure a month of torment as scores of wide-eyed children, all of whom earnestly believe in him, jockey to sit on his lap. Willie can barely keep it together as they spit, sneeze, and ask a million questions.
Ten years after its release, Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa, a rail whiskey blend of Brecht and Bukowski, has become a holiday standard. Brought to life by a Jew from Wisconsin (Zwigoff) and four Jewish brothers (two Coens and two Weinsteins), it is regarded as a classic send-up of Christmas culture gone awry. The crude, brilliant movie is a staple of Comedy Central’s December line-up. It also lives on in holiday viewings on the big screen and has spawned several ersatz genre knock-offs with unimaginative titles like Bad Teacher and Bad Grandpa. (A long-rumored Bad Santa sequel is reportedly set to shoot next year.)
Last week, when a New York Times opinion contributor railed against SantaCon—the annual parade of 30,000 drunken Santa Clauses through parts of Manhattan—the writer grimly characterized the average participant as “Billy Bob Thornton in ‘Bad Santa,’ if the character were 24 and worked at Bain Capital.” That’s a lot of juice for a decade-old movie that only grossed about $60 million at the domestic box office.
But it’s the genius of Bad Santa that gets overshadowed by its notoriety. With an assault of impiety, the film makes Christmastime in America seem an impossible place to be if you live at the margins. The way that message is conveyed throughout the movie, however, is more fluid than solid. After his introductory monologue, Willie stumbles into the alley behind the bar where, with the Chopin nocturne still lilting, he upchucks loudly into the snow. It’s a beautiful shot, retching Santa and all, that ends with the postcard appearance of the movie title in red lettering.
The script for Bad Santa was written by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, a longtime Hollywood writing duo of some banal comedies. The final product, however, teems with classic flourishes from Joel and Ethan Coen, who rewrote the script and served as executive producers on the film.
In true Coen fashion, the world of Bad Santa is populated by a cast of quirky, slightly defective characters. In addition to the acidly disapproving Marcus, there is the chubby, sincere, and infuriating 10-year-old Thurman (Brett Kelly), the Metamucil-guzzling mall detective Gin (Bernie Mac), the nervously well-meaning mall manager Bob (John Ritter in his last film), and Sue, a bartender whose Jewish father’s dismissal of Christmas planted the seeds for her Santa fetish (Lauren Graham). As the characters intersect with Willie, there isn’t a punch pulled or disappointment unlevied. For a dark comedy, there are remarkably few flat moments. (Sarah Silverman’s scenes were cut from the theatrical version.)
According to legend, both Jack Nicholson and Bill Murray were interested in the lead part which, given Thornton’s masterful performance as the weary, perturbed Willie, seems unimaginable now. Handing an actor a role where no social grace is honored is a dream scenario; nevertheless Thornton delivers with aplomb. His watery eyes shift from resignation to lust to indifference as he both gives and absorbs some jaw-dropping vitriolic lines.
In one early scene, the young, all-believing Thurman pulls down Willie’s fake white beard and remarks that it’s not real. Here’s what follows:
Willie: No shit. Well, it was real, but I got sick and all the hair fell out and now I have to wear this fucking thing.
Thurman: How come?
Willie: I loved a woman who wasn’t clean.
Thurman: Mrs. Santa?
Willie: No, it was her sister.
(Part of this exchange appeared in the film’s trailer and TV commercials, which also prompted outrage.) Much later in the film, when Thurman walks in on Willie and Sue in a compromised position, as Thurman bids them goodnight, he addresses them as “Santa” and “Mrs. Santa’s sister” respectively.
In an interview last year, director Terry Zwigoff explained how the Coen Brothers turned Bad Santa from holiday pastiche into scorched earth. “Like the kid would ask Santa, ‘Do you and Mrs. Santa ever think of having kids?’ And in the original script it was just, ‘No, thank God.’ And the Coens made that into, ‘No, thank the fuck Christ.’ That’s their gift. They have a gift for dialogue.”
That gift earned the film some detractors. After the release, Catholic League President William Donohue issued a fatwa against Bad Santa, choicely saying that the Miramax release “blackens Disney’s Snow White image.”
Donahue elaborated: “In a word association game, the mere mention of Santa to kids begets comments like ‘kind,’ ‘cheerful,’ and ‘loving.’ But the Santa in ‘Bad Santa’ is anything but: he is a chain-smoking, drunken, foul-mouthed, suicidal, sexual predator. He is shown soiling himself in Santa’s chair, vomiting in alleys, having sex with a woman bartender in a car, and performing anal sex on a huge woman in a dressing room. And his commentary in front of kids is replete with the ‘F-word.’ ”
During a recent viewing, I lost count after 100 utterances of the ‘F-word,’ averaging out to well over one per minute. Donohue saves his best dog-whistle line for last: “The movie will be a hit with college drop-outs, toilet-humor buffs, and those who think like the Weinstein brothers.”
Those who think like the Weinstein brothers include not only the Coen brothers, but also director Terry Zwigoff. Zwigoff, who has made a career shooting movies about outcasts and unsympathetic characters (including Crumb, an excellent documentary about the artist R. Crumb), grew up in a Jewish family in a small town in Wisconsin.
Despite the uproar, Bad Santa appears on a surprisingly diffuse list of best Christmas movies. It also received wide critical acclaim; Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 of 4 stars and included it among the dozen movies in his annual Overlooked Film Festival in 2006. Time’s Richard Schickel credited it with plugging into and electrifying “the mostly unacknowledged grimness that lies just beneath our holiday cheer.”
Grinches, naysayers, and loners were already well-worn conceits when Bad Santa hit theaters. Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which turned 170 years old this year, fathered countless heirs. One of the more progressive adaptations was Scrooged, the 1988 comedy starring Bill Murray, who inhabited the role of a cold-hearted television executive with a manic darkness.
The motif even seeped over into action flicks. In the original Die Hard, Bruce Willis played John McClain, a grizzled, unsentimental New York City cop, who foils a German heist at a Christmas party. “Now I have a machine gun. Ho Ho Ho,” he scrawls onto the body of a dead terrorist before sending the corpse back to the enemy. Ditto the first Lethal Weapon, which ends with the suicidal Mel Gibson gifting his partner Danny Glover the bullet he planned to use to kill himself with, wrapped in a big red bow. All’s well by Christmas morning.
The crucial difference between typical Christmas movies and Bad Santa is that the others oscillate in the direction of yuletide goodwill just before the final credits roll. At first they don’t believe and yet they come to believe. With the “othering” undone, the narrative of Christmas redemption is served. It’s as if the meaning of Christmas would be impossible for others to divine without someone there standing in opposition to it. (See: Christmas, War on.)
While Bad Santa jerks in the direction of a happy ending, there is little redemption to be had. After all, no one is asking that we get into the spirit of Christmas or channel its goodwill. For a Jew at Christmastime, it’s all we could ever want in a holiday movie.
This article was originally published on December 17, 2013.
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