You Better Watch Out

Dark but hilarious 'Bad Santa' is a brilliant, searing lump of coal for the stockings of the naughty among us.

November 26, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Bad Santa is gloriously funky in the good old meaning of the term. Its vulgarity may be offensive, but it's also pungent and real, and it fuels some ferocious humor.

Far from chic and more than merely irreverent, it taps into the rip-it-apart spirit of anyone who's ever gotten sick from the forced good cheer of "the holidays" or the empty politeness that reigns in mall culture for the rest of the year.

Its antihero, Billy Bob Thornton's Christmas-hating Santa, is in a funk that never lifts. His dad left him with one inheritance - skill at cracking safes. He and his super-savvy dwarf partner (the brilliantly cantankerous Tony Cox) have pooled their talents into a Santa-and-elf scam that allows them to invade department stores at the peak yuletide buying season and make away with every last penny of the Christmas cash.

The raunchy hilarity emerges from the collision of Thornton's lower-than-lowdown personality with the manufactured Up With People hopefulness of a commercialized holiday season and the spanking-new blankness of the Southwestern suburb where most of the movie is set.

The Coen brothers, who executive-produced, have compared this movie to the Old Hollywood slob comedies featuring bellicose and bleary-eyed Wallace Beery. But director Terry Zwigoff, who in Crumb and Ghost World proved himself more talented than the Coen brothers, has pulled off something even rarer.

In a unique collaboration with Thornton, Zwigoff masters the trick of Golden Age contrarians like Mae West. They pull even semi-sympathetic viewers so far into their renegade sensibility that they provoke audience-wide howls at every lewd remark or act of social transgression.

The late John Ritter superbly plays a good-natured store manager who knows there's something off when he overhears his zonked beanpole Santa having sex in the dressing room of the oversized-women's department. Of course, Ritter is right. But by the time he confronts Thornton, director Zwigoff has made you identify so completely with Thornton's nihilistic point of view that the manager comes off as a lovable sap - a victim of his own hygienic consumer sensibility. It's a nasty delight to see Thornton turn the tables on a possible firing and accuse Ritter of harassing African-American little people (Cox is black).

Zwigoff's direction lets bad feelings simmer until bits of unexpected comedy bubble to the surface - like that scowling dwarf taking a fierce bite of a candy cane as if he were an Elizabethan thug biting his thumb. The way Zwigoff paces the action, the outrageousness never subsides. It keeps cascading, even as the comic invention flags.

Ritter expects his security chief, Bernie Mac, to right things. But Mac, whose character has his own hidden agenda, gives his boss a shriveling lesson in how not to regulate employee behavior. Mac, of course, knows how to exploit a cryptic glare better than anyone in the business. But a lot of the store scenes' effectiveness comes from Zwigoff's willingness to let Ritter's incredulity accumulate until it takes on the weight of comic pathos.

The key to Thornton's performance is that, unlike the other worldly characters (including Cox), he does what he does because he's alcoholic and suicidal and unable to put up a normal front.

Ironically, his desperation allows him to connect with the figures in the Zwigoff universe who aren't just out for blood or money. These include a dim, obese 8-year-old (Brett Kelly) who, against all the evidence, insists on believing in Thornton's Santa-ness, and a goodhearted girl with a Santa fixation (percolating Lauren Graham) who really, really likes him.

Even the movie's positive details are blessedly peculiar. Thornton moves in with the kid out of necessity. The circumstances are dire enough to make him a benign influence - the lad's dad is behind bars and his grandma (Cloris Leachman) snores in front of the TV. There's something insanely inspired about having the kid cut his hand while carving a gift for Thornton: it turns out to be a wooden pickle.

And Thornton, who resembles an anorexic heir to Warren Oates, never goes mushy. He keeps ogling Graham's anatomy even when she's dressing the tannenbaum at the kid's place.

At its best, Bad Santa suggests what W.C. Fields might have done with a hard R rating.

Bad Santa

Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, John Ritter and Bernie Mac

Directed by Terry Zwigoff

Rated R

Released by Dimension

Time 90 minutes

Sun Score ***1/2

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