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It's not in a critic's job description to tell a filmmaker how to make a better film; there are plenty of suits in Hollywood happy to do that at the drop of an option. But "Bad Santa," TerryZwigoff's new film, is one of those maddening experiences that cry out for help, and since I know exactly how the film should have been made, instead of how it was made, I will explain to Zwigoff and his writers, John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, what they should have done.
The film tells of two criminal partners, Willie and Marcus, and their wonderful scam. Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is a grungy, alcoholic safecracker teetering on the last low rungs of the ladder to oblivion before he collapses into the abyss. Marcus (Tony Cox) is a black dwarf, the brains of the outfit, who has to hold Willie together in order to play the scam, which is that every year from Thanksgiving to Christmas they work a department store. A different city, a different store. Willie gets hired as the store's Santa and Marcus is the elf who helps the children onto Santa's lap. While they work they're casing the place to find the big store safe. Each year on Christmas Eve, after closing, they crack open the safe, take out all the money that's accumulated during shopping season, and get away clean. They've been doing this for seven years, and they spend the rest of each year living on the money. Separately, because Marcus can't stand being with Willie even one more minute than necessary.
Willie just can't hold it together any more. He calls the kids 'little fuckers,' he curses everybody and everything, he drinks all day on the job, he warns the kids not to piss on his leg, he passes out, he insults the parents, intimidates the store manager (John Ritter in his last film), and then runs up against store security chief Bernie Mac, who's smart enough to see through them and wants in on the deal.
One day at the store, a portly little boy (Brett Kelly) who's a perennial victim, the butt of jokes and tortures each day after school, decides that Willie is the real Santa and takes him home to live, an easy out for Willie, who's just being evicted from his motel room. The boy, whose mother now lives with Jesus and whose father has been on a 'business trip' for the past two years - read prison - lives with his senile grandmother (an uncredited Cloris Leachman).
One night Willie, who's always in his shabby Santa suit, meets pretty Sue (Lauren Graham) in a bar; soon she's crying out "Fuck me Santa" in the car; it's her great turn-on and it's very cute in the film.
Okay; so much for the plot. What's wrong with "Bad Santa?" What's wrong is that Willie is a total asshole from beginning to end. Once we meet him there's no place for him to go, grow, change or learn. Not only is he a bad Santa, he's bad at being Santa, and that's the film's big mistake. If he were at least two-faced at the job, even a kind of Krusty the Clown, the film would have been irresistible; we would watch as the job, the heist and the disintegration came closer and closer to their inevitable meeting. But Thornton hasn't been given even one moment of self-awareness, of regret, of anticipation even; he lives in the gutter even when he's a house guest at the kid's in the suburbs. What could have been a classic black comedy as rapacity, ineptitude and hope meet on a collision course, instead ends up as just a cult near-miss.