This year, Christmas moviegoers have a choice. We can go for the unrelieved cheer of "Love Actually" or we can pick the unrelieved bad taste disguised as cynicism of "Bad Santa." Which would you rather?
"Love Actually" slings together eight or nine London love stories, knitting them upwith the thread of Christmas magic. Some of the lovers are lucky, some ill-fated, and some mournful losers, but none of their tales are explored in any depth. The project of shoehorning eight different romances into about two and a half hours means that everybody gets at most 15 minutes. Only the notion that Christmas works a kind of magic spell draws the stories into a whole. But Yuletide is not now responsible for generosity, charity, or tolerance. This December star inexplicably unleashes lust. The young and hopeful do splendidly, the middle-aged do not so well. But we knew that.
The funniest character in "Love, Actually" is a washed up, Rod Stewart-style rock star played by Bill Nighy. We see him in the opening shots trying to lay down a comeback single, a Christmas remake of "Love Is All Around." The meter doesn’t scan. Nighy is given to making smart remarks like "Don’t buy drugs! Become a rock star and get them for free," and promising to undress on TV if his song hits number one. He’s fried and dissipated, but his producers plug him into a glam-rock music video — lots of long legs, red lips and gyrating hips around him — and the song takes off. Meanwhile, Emma Thompson is married to Alan Rickman, who’s surreptitiously picking out a gold necklace for a seductive 20-year-old employee in his design shop. Rowan Atkinson (better known as Mr. Bean) is fussily wrapping up the package. Some mope is in love with Kiera Knightley and obsesses over her wedding videos, but she’s married and not in love back. Another mope named Colin can’t get any action in London, so he flies to Milwaukee where he hits the jackpot in what is either an off campus U.W. sorority or a brothel. (It appears not to make any difference). Liam Neeson is disconsolate from the loss of his wife, and has to watch in agony as his 10-year-old son falls seriously and madly in love with a classmate. A 10-year-old seriously in love? This painful plot twist lets us know that the movie is product, designed to play to every possible audience segment, from the playground set to the nearly geriatric.
While Emma Thompson is figuring out her husband’s a rat, and Laura Linney’s long-delayed tryst is interrupted by her schizophrenic brother, and still more stories are clumping along, Hugh Grant is pretending to be Tony Blair, flirting with a pretty household staffer at 10 Downing St. Why he has trouble getting together with her isn’t really explained (some childhood hang-up about intimacy?), but he has enough gumption to stand up to the President of the United States. Billy Bob Thornton, playing a Bush-Clinton-Sonny Corleone cross with convincing sliminess, is quite believably trying to bully Mr. Prime Minister into supporting something the English people really shouldn’t be supporting. And we all know what that is. It’s an odd moment watching Grant deliver a Christmas present to the British people in the form of a speech that could never have unfolded in Blair’s head, much less floated off his tongue. It must have been wishful thinking on the British writers’ parts. So too we hope it’s just a movie fantasy that Mr. Blair boogies-down to soulful oldies when he thinks no one is looking.
But enough of this mess! The nice thing about "Bad Santa" is it doesn’t go in for schlock. Terry Zwigoff’s twisted film does everything possible to keep smarmy redemption from creeping in. (Zwigoff’s the maker of "Crumb", one of my favorite bad taste films ever.) The f-word and all kinds of verbal and physical abuse, and jokes about anal are offered like as talismans to keep sentimentality at bay. Christmas is just a backdrop to this caper story, the pretext for a heist, and the grimey Santa suit is the perfect disguise. We don’t even get moralizing in the form of the inverted carnival perspective that makes wide-eyed Christmas believers into dupes. Yeah! We just get grizzled, bleary-eyed Billy Bob Thornton as the evil saint and not-so heroic demon. It’s really nice to catch Thornton twice in the same week.
Billy Bob plays Willie, an alcoholic safecracker who gets the inside track on department stores by taking a seasonal job as Mr. Claus. In or out of the beard and red suit, he really doesn’t do much except what most down and outers do. He drinks till he falls over, pees or vomits on himself or someone else, sleeps until he wakes up and then starts over. By the time he wonders where his next meal is coming from, he’s in major caloric deficit. Like all far gone in alcoholism, he can’t stay out of trouble, so Marcus (Tony Cox) his black dwarf/ Santa’s elf accomplice has to keep him in line. Marcus is the brains of the operation, and he’s getting fed up.
The safecracker and the dwarf settle into a new Christmas job in Phoenix, where they attract the suspicious attentions of the department store manager (John Ritter) and his cheif of security (Bernie Mac). Willie hooks up with a sexy bartender who has a thing for men in floppy red hats. He also stumbles over a very slow and expressionless kid named Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly). The kid is just barely being cared for by a senile grandmother (Cloris Leachman), and he latches on to Willie like a limpet. He simply will not let up on the dopey questions about where the reindeer sleep. As the black dwarf cases Saguaro Square Mall for the job, Willie invades Grandma’s House, hijacks the Mercedes, slips the bartender into the Jacuzzi, and pretty soon a fragile family constructs itself. Think this looks hopeful? Willie is right up there with W.C. Fields when it comes to relating to kids, and his bad habits, like brawling in the parking lot and trolling for sex in the women’s Plus Sizes department, spell the beginning of the end.
"Bad Santa" has good word-of-mouth, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s about a man who has no future, and doesn’t expect ever to have one, and refuses to act like he does. If the movie drags in places, it’s because you can’t really build a lot of peppy rhythm into this sort of determined downward spiral. There are times when Thornton makes you think you’re looking at all the people who felt too bad about themselves to show up for your high school reunion. More than half the employable population probably feels that way about now, given the jobless figures. What with all the jollity being pressed down on us in the name of keeping the consumer economy kicking, a significant portion of the people who can afford a movie probably finds an irreverent story about a foulmouthed scumbag in a red suit refreshing, in a disgusting and downbeat sort of way. I did.
SUSAN DAVIS teaches at the University of Illinois.