With the smell of pine wafting through the air, 1940s music playing on loop in every public space, and Home Alone being shown nearly every night on Freeform, the holiday season is certainly upon us. And while this certainly means that I will be binge-watching all of the ‘60s claymation and animated holiday films, the constant exposure to unabashed holiday cheer can be a bit numbing.
Bad Santa was produced by the beloved Coen brothers, and, although definitely not their most successful film venture, the offbeat humor that defines the Coen style imbues the holiday film with a sense of realism that makes it all the more refreshing. Similar to A Christmas Carol or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the centralization of such an unsavory protagonist adds some holiday spice to the genre. But Bad Santa is set apart by its persistent and unnerving realism in its edge. Whereas some may loosely identify with a bitter Ebeneezer Scrooge, Willie Stokes’s downward spiral feels much more tangible, allowing the audience to connect to the character and his struggles to a higher degree.
Some may detest the bitter edge of Bad Santa, as it so directly subverts the expectation, or even the standard, of a holiday film. But the film is not crass or cynical for the sake of satirizing the “ideal” holiday movie. In typical Coen brothers’ fashion, the dark content is mellowed by the tenderness of the characters. For every time the viewer laughs or winces at the pitiful existence of Willie Stokes, there is a moment of softness that tugs at the audience’s heartstrings. Instead of completely turning the “holiday film” on its head, Director Terry Zwigoff shows that he is fully aware of what the product is: a holiday movie. The film brims with the bounty of the season, with the spirit that emerges from the bleak content of the story.
This combination of cynical reality and prevailing warmth is what separates Bad Santa from any other holiday movie. Rather than ignoring life’s burdens or its bright lights, the film embraces both to produce a palatable and grounded experience. This balance is what makes the movie so refreshingly different from other holiday films, but fit so perfectly with them as well. The duality of the bitter reality of alcoholism and crime, contrasted with the holiday spirit and tender relationship between Stokes and little Thurman Merman, not only makes the story feel more natural, but makes the tenderness conveyed all the more genuine and vibrant.
With a perfect balance between gritty cynicism and heartfelt holiday spirit, Bad Santa has proven to be a refreshing alternative to the homogeneous genre of holiday films. While Rudolph and Home Alone still reign as holiday classics, Bad Santa most certainly deserves a seat at the table.