This is the time of year where you can’t go more than a half-hour without seeing a Christmas movie on TV. We’re basically in the heart of the holiday season. People have finally stopped complaining about Christmas decorations going up too early or getting a head start on their shopping. It’s not just fast-approaching anymore. The holidays are here.
Now, I love the holidays as much as anyone. As such, I have a strong appreciation for Christmas movies. I often go through stretches in December where I’ll watch at least part of a Christmas movie every day. It’s a beautiful thing that gets me in the spirit and gives me an excuse to drink eggnog spiked with whiskey.
I have a long list of personal favorites. I’m also among those who argue vehemently that “Die Hard” qualifies as a Christmas movie. Despite what Bruce Willis himself says, this movie will always be part of my holiday viewing schedule. I could write multiple articles to justify that position, but that’s not my intent here.
In recent years, I’ve found myself immersed in another argument surrounding a unique kind of Christmas movie. That movie is a lesser-known, but underrated gem called “Bad Santa.” If you’ve seen it, then you probably understand why it inspires such colorful discussions during the holidays. If you haven’t, then I urge you to check it out, but do not watch it with your children.
Make no mistake. “Bad Santa” is to Christmas movies what the McRib is to fast food fans. It’s one of those rare movies that doesn’t just go in the opposite direction of every classic trope associated with a particular genre. It gives those themes the finger, kicks it in the balls, and throws up on them for good measure.
This movie has no holiday miracles. There’s no magic at work. There’s no heartwarming moments that reaffirm the spirit of the season. This movie is weapons grade cynicism for all things Christmas and it goes about it in a way that’s vulgar, crude, disgusting, and hilarious.
The story is not for the faint of heart. It follows Willie Soke, a degenerate, misanthropic, womanizing, alcoholic who makes his living cracking safes with his dwarf partner-in-crime, Marcus Skidmore. Their tactics are the antithesis of the holiday spirit. Willie works as a mall Santa while Marcus works as an elf. They work at malls during the holidays and then rob them on Christmas Eve.
If you expect the movie to be a feel-good holiday story about a criminal redeeming himself during Christmas, then prepare to be disappointed. Willie is not that kind of character and “Bad Santa” does not tell that kind of story. While Willie does undergo some growth, he’s still an asshole by the time the credits roll.
The story doesn’t try to redeem Willie. It doesn’t even try to put him on the path to becoming a better person. All the Christmas miracles in world can’t do that for someone like him. However, his story does bring something uniquely festive to the table. The way things play out for Willie and those around him convey a powerful message that resonates with the holiday season in its own perverse way.
Some go so far as to argue that “Bad Santa” is an anti-Christmas movie. I can understand that sentiment to some extent. However, I would argue that “Bad Santa” is one of those movies that has become more relevant with time. I would even argue that, in the context of the modern spirit of Christmas, “Bad Santa” is the greatest modern Christmas movie.
Now, I know that won’t sit well with those who still love “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” I don’t deny that those are great Christmas movies that deserve to be classics. I’m not arguing that “Bad Santa” is better than those movies or deserves to be in the same category. I simply believe that “Bad Santa” is the greatest Christmas movie for the current times in which we live and these are my reasons why.
Reason #1: It Reflects The Real (And Increasingly Jaded) World
Let’s face it. These are not the upbeat, idealistic times of yesteryear. People no longer trust in their government. People keep seeing once-beloved celebrities self-destruct. In general, people just aren’t confident about the future anymore. As a society, we’re becoming more and more jaded. That’s exactly the kind of sentiment that “Bad Santa” appeals to.
This movie is a world where assholes keep being assholes. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. That may not be a great basis for a Christmas movie, but it perfectly represents the real world, now more than ever. In this day and age, we see famous and powerful people get away with awful things time and again. There’s no miracle that comes around to right all the wrongs.
In “Bad Santa,” this harsh view of the world isn’t avoided. For the entire movie, Willie essentially channels the defeatist attitude of Al Bundy. His life sucks. He hates himself. He barely even flinches when he’s staring down the barrel of a gun at one point. Beyond the self-loathing, though, he finds a way to provide real insights into the holidays.
Do we really need all the crap we ask for on Christmas? Do we really need magic, miracles, or some grand spectacle to appreciate it? Willie’s entire persona is an indictment of those who rely too much on magical thinking during the holidays. In the real world, that doesn’t get anyone anything other than a gut punch and a kick in the ass.
Reason #2: It Relies On Choices Rather Than Miracles
As deplorable a human being as Willie Soke is, he does have one defining trait that makes him somewhat sympathetic. He doesn’t make excuses. He doesn’t blame the world or everyone else for his lousy lot in life. He’s very much a product of his choices. He chooses to drink, spit, swear, and piss himself while wearing a Santa suit. There’s no extenuating circumstances. These are his choices.
Granted, they’re deplorable choices from someone inclined to self-destruction, but he makes them freely and doesn’t hide from the consequences. These same choices are what makes his relationship to the dense, but lovable kid in the movie, Therman, so meaningful. Willie has no reason to care or help this kid in any capacity and the kid is in no position to stop him.
In the end, though, Willie doesn’t need a miracle or some visit from Christmas spirits to make his choices. Therman’s influence on him, while ridiculous and downright pathetic at times, is sufficient for him to make the choices that make the story work. While they don’t necessarily redeem Willie for all his misdeeds, it does show that even a drunk like him can do the right thing without a miracle.
That, in and of itself, is a testament to the spirit of Christmas. When someone like Willie Soke can actually choose to do something good for a gullible kid, then that offers hope to any jaded soul on the holidays.
Reason #3: It Highlights Small (But Meaningful) Gestures
Many of the most memorable Christmas movies often have these big, elaborate gestures that attempt to make our hearts gush with holiday cheer. Whether it’s embracing loved ones at the end of “It’s A Wonderful Life” or reuniting with family in “Home Alone,” it feels like a Christmas movie has to go overboard with holiday sentiment.
“Bad Santa” takes the exact opposite approach, but somehow finds a way to make those gestures more meaningful. The movie doesn’t take place in the North Pole or some fanciful holiday setting. It takes place in Phoenix, Arizona where it doesn’t snow and heavy coats are useless. It effectively removes the ambiance of the holidays beyond the tacky decorations that people put up.
That works perfectly for “Bad Santa” because it ensures any gesture carries more weight. Whether it’s Willie trying to get Thurman his Christmas present or Willie putting back together the Advent Calendar, these small moments feel bigger in a setting devoid of traditional holiday magic.
There’s no sweeping change that turns Phoenix into some sort of Christmas haven. The world of “Bad Santa” never tries to be anything other than a world of shallow holiday imagery because that’s all it needs. Anything more than that is just fantasy and there’s only so much fantasy you can muster in a story that follows a misanthropic drunk.
Reason #4: It Offers Perspective Rather Than Hope
Another major trait of classic Christmas movies is the hope they inspire. When you get to the end of a Christmas movie, you’re supposed to feel a sense of hope. There’s this sense that the story has somehow rekindled someone’s holiday spirit. While there will always be a place for that kind of hope in a fantasy world, “Bad Santa” offers something different, but valuable.
More than anything else, “Bad Santa” conveys a sense of perspective about the holidays. It’s not this wonderful, heartfelt occasion for everybody. There are a lot of miserable, self-loathing drunks like Willie Soke out there who don’t want or need hope. They’d rather have something that’ll make life suck a little less.
That’s the best Willie can strive for in “Bad Santa” and that’s exactly what he does. Being around Therman doesn’t make him a beacon of Christmas spirit. It just makes his miserable life slightly less miserable and he’s grateful for that. As a result, he makes an effort to help the kid have a good Christmas.
Sure, his efforts result in him getting roughed up and shot, but that’s perfectly appropriate for the tone of the story. In the real world, noble efforts like that aren’t always rewarded. Sometimes, they end up pretty messy, which Willie finds out the hard way on more than one occasion. It’s not the most uplifting message, but it’s the most honest.
Perspective today is more precious than it has ever been before. In the era of fake news and alternative facts, it’s hard to maintain a firm grasp on reality. Christmas movies tend to obscure reality for something more cheerful, but “Bad Santa” for something more real and that’s what makes it so effective as a story.
Reason #5: It Finds Humor In Bad Situations
To this point, if I’ve given the impression that “Bad Santa” is one depressing slog of a movie, I apologize. Yes, it can be depressing and bleak, but it’s also obscenely funny. There are dark moments in this movie that involve depression, alcoholism, and even attempted suicide. However, many of these moments are perfectly balanced with moments of raw hilarity.
Whether it’s Willie beating the snot out of a bunch of bullies or Marcus berating Gin with a masterful string of profanity, this movie invests heavily on humor. Granted, it’s a very adult form of humor, but it works perfectly within the context of the story. From the very beginning, Willie and his supporting cast are in all sorts of awful situations. Injecting humor into the mix helps balance it out.
It helps create a particular tone for a movie that goes out of its way to spit on so many holiday traditions. Things are ugly for these characters. They’re miserable excuses for human beings, but they often find themselves in funny situations that they make more hilarious with their reactions. No matter how bad it gets, they find a way to make their devolving situations entertaining.
In an era were awful situations unfold in real time because of social media, it’s important to find humor wherever you can. There’s only so much we can do to change a situation. Willie makes that clear from the very beginning of “Bad Santa.” Sometimes, all you can do is just laugh at the absurdities and that’s exactly what this movie does.
I won’t claim that “Bad Santa” is the new standard for Christmas movies. I doubt it’s going to start the kinds of trends we’ve seen in other genres. However, the story it told and the dark humor it utilized struck a chord when it first came out. As the years have gone by, it keeps finding new ways to resonate with an emerging audience.
There will always be a place for “Home Alone” and the Grinch. However, I think for the current generation and all the others who have watched this world embrace new levels of absurdities, “Bad Santa” deserves a special place in our holiday traditions.