*Bad Santa (R)
I'm no Christmas hata, but it's not hard to fathom why one might elect to spend the season hocking lugeys of venom upon the logs of Yule.
For starters, there's nothing like culturally mandated conviviality to highlight your winter's discontent. Throw in a few obligatory family functions and the holiday office party and 'tis the season to be cantankerous. Underlying it all, of course, is the co-optation of a religious holiday into a consumerist mandate. (For more on this, see Linus Van Pelt's famous encomium in A Charlie Brown Christmas. )
What's remarkable about Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa is that it manages to celebrate this seldom-sung anti-Christmas ethos without drowning in the bowels of misanthropy.
Zwigoff is a filmmaker whose forte is American alienation, be it from Christmas, the lingering mess of adolescence (Ghost World) or even one's own strange success (Crumb). In Bad Santa, he's envisioned St. Nick as a staggering lowlife anti-hero in the form of Willie T. Soke (Billy Bob Thornton). In a drunken stupor from start to finish, Soke is no longer capable, or interested, in pulling his stained beard above his chin, much less in feigning concern for the wants of his pint-sized clients. This Santa is so bad, he's a hoot: cursing out children while riding out the DTs and generally making an ass of himself wherever he goes.
Teamed up with an African-American dwarf named Marcus (Tony Cox), the two are a decidedly non-sexy version of Bonnie and Clyde. Their hustle is to get hired by shopping malls as a Santa-with-Elf value pack, then exploit their perch to case the joint and, after closing time on Christmas Eve, rob it blind. Marcus is logistics; Soke's the safecracker. The gig has worked like a charm for six years straight, until Soke's binging catches up with him.
Choosing a Phoenix mall managed by the late John Ritter, Marcus props Santa up and apologizes for his fits of drunken apoplexy, incontinence and sexual improprieties. Bernie Mac also stars as the mall's less-than-scrupulous security guard.
Shortly after bonking a bartender with a Santa fetish, Soke finds himself saved from an ass whooping by a lonely little kid. Corpulent with dried snot forever haunting his upper lip, "the kid" (Brett Kelly) is an extremely well-coached child actor. His duh-like demeanor and tawdry sweat suits make him the sort of child wedgies were invented for.
His irrepressible need for a surrogate father (his real one's an accountant serving time for embezzlement) makes him a laughable counterpoint to Soke, who's only too happy to shack up in the kid's guest room while dishing out disgust and disinterest in return.
Bad Santa's humor is dark and plentiful, and it's derived from the contrast between the doughy-eyed wants of childhood and the saggy-eyed stupor of midlife. Matching the kid's buoyancy with Soke's cynical self-destruction, the two manage to rescue one other from their own respective demons while, in Zwigoff's depraved way, saving Christmas from itself.
Bad Santa is a naughty catharsis on par with smashing wine bottles against a brick wall. It flips the bird to mawkish Christmas cheer, to cutchy-coo Christmas films and to a culture where children are treated like cult objects. What Billy Bob Thornton delivers is a drunk's version of the Christmas spirit. As improbable as it is delightful, see it with someone you love to hate.
-- John Dicker
Cinemark 16, Tinseltown