Based on a story by the Coen Brothers, Bad Santa is obsessed with detailing the squalor of its titular character’s life. A viciously misanthropic con man, Willie T. Soke (Billy Bob Thornton), along with his dwarf accomplice, robs the stores he works for every Christmas season. The intimacy with which Soke’s self-hatred is enumerated borders on the grotesque, not because of any innate repulsion toward such subject matter, but because it’s all done in such an aggressively clumsy manner. The satiric skewering of traditional values, yuletide or otherwise, by focusing on the bitterness and loathing of one fringe-dwelling individual, is a time-honored practice, often giving rise to a parodic philosophy of refreshing distrust and genuine insight. Bad Santa is a work of profoundly skeptical vulgarity which refuses to kowtow to, if not works against established generic notions of the “Christmas film,” but this refusal is so poorly versed, so shoddily constructed, that what lingers in the mind is the vulgarity itself rather than any well-articulated subversive intention.
The script trots out a collage of foul language, sex and violent anti-social behavior in an attempt to impress the audience with how little it needs to care, and ends up looking cheaply provocative. Tony Cox in particular, playing Soke’s partner Marcus, is labored with dialogue so heavily dipped in profanity that it begins to sound like ad-libbed playground ranting, and sequences obviously designed to elicit laughter, such as Cox’s confrontation with a sluggish Bernie Mac as the head of store security, look like two ill-prepared improv performers left in front of the camera and told to kill time. Some of Thornton’s actorly passages transcend the film’s dishonest agenda and are oddly compelling for their brevity; they offers fleeting glimpses of Soke’s wounds and, to his credit, Thornton never overplays these moments.
The not-so-little Brett Kelly, as Soke’s chubby conscience (most often referred to as “the kid”), was presumably chosen for the film because he couldn’t act, and he behaves with the cringing awkwardness that suits a child so typically humiliated. His scenes with Thornton’s Soke are at times broadly humorous if only because of Soke’s amazement at the kid’s ability to absorb every insult he hurls at him, but it’s because these insults appear to exist solely as spectacle that they become unfunny acts of cruelty fobbing themselves off as the “truths” of a cynically realistic humor. Bad Santa does indeed have a sentimental streak; presumably once the filmmakers have demonstrated their lack of belief in generic clichés, they feel that they can adopt the strategies of those very same clichés with impunity. Bad Santa tries to be as vulgar and offensive as possible so that it might somehow justify the inevitability of its own happy ending.