Bad Santa confused me a little. I’m not sure why I expected it to be something other than a traditional Hollywood redemption story–maybe because of Terry Zwigoff, maybe because I didn’t know (or didn’t remember from trailers and buzz) it was about Santa robbing malls. After seeing Zwigoff’s Ghost World, I avoided Bad Santa because I figured it’d be bad too. It’s interesting Zwigoff’s a hipster director because it’s got one of the most manipulative scenes I’ve ever seen in Bad Santa (outside of, I suppose, an episode of “All My Children”). He has this really funny scene–I think it’s the one where Tony Cox and Bernie Mac are yelling at each other–then he goes right into a suicide attempt. So, you’re still laughing from the first scene when you’re watching the decidedly unfunny subsequent scene. Once I realized what was happening, I couldn’t believe it. I think I started laughing more, actually, because it was an incredibly silly thing to watch.
However, Billy Bob Thornton ended up pulling the scene around, which is where Bad Santa gets interesting… with the exception of Thornton, John Ritter and Bernie Mac, the acting in Bad Santa is awful. The kid–to whom Thornton becomes a surrogate father–is fine. He’s really good with Thornton (or Thornton’s really good with him), but Zwigoff also has a good way of directing those scenes. Anyway, besides him… the acting is atrocious. Lauren Graham’s useless, Tony Cox is occasionally okay, occasionally terrible and Lauren Tom provides frequent motivation for turning off the film. But Thornton’s amazing. Even though the script is a melodramatic albatross, Thornton pulls the lines off wonderfully. In many ways, it’s a shame his performance was wasted in this film.
Zwigoff’s poor choice of music hurts a lot of the scenes in the second half–there’s one sequence where the music appears to be too loud or something, it’s disconcerting, but a more appropriate volume wouldn’t have made it a better choice–and the film’s definitely at odds with itself. The mix of absurd and real doesn’t work out–mostly the script, but also the direction (and the editing is schizophrenic).
But Thornton’s performance is a marvel and it makes the film. It’s just too bad the film doesn’t make anything for itself.