Laura Clifford Robin CliffordWillie T. Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) has done prison time, been married twice, had his eye socket punched in and has a bone chip in his ankle that will never go away, but as he downs yet another Old Grandad in a seedy bar wearing a Santa suit, he informs us that nothing sucks his posterior more than his current job dealing with the preteen public during the holidays. Willie is a "Bad Santa."
Director Terry Zwigoff ("Ghost World") (who has a screenwriting cred with Arnie Marx on a script by "Cats & Dogs" scribes John Requa & Glenn Ficarra based on a story by the Coen brothers ("Intolerable Cruelty")) has delivered Yuletide's most twisted heartwarmer. Here's a Santa who works with a Black midget, Marcus (Tony Cox, "Me, Myself & Irene"), as his elf, moving from city to city to clean out department store safes and merchandise on Christmas Eve. While on duty as Santa, Willie is more foul-mouthed than the goons in "Goodfellas" and pissing-himself drunk, yet like the Grinch, his heart grows a little larger when a pathetic kid (where-did-they-find-him newcomer Brett Kelly!) idolizes him.
Marcus is the mastermind, constantly haranguing Willie to clean up his act when he isn't filling his squeaky-voiced girlfriend's (Lauren Tom, "North) Christmas list. Marcus knows that Willie, who blows his annual haul every year on booze and broads, needs him more than he needs Willie and is getting increasingly frustrated with his partner's on the job shenanigans. But Willie knows his way around prissy Phoenix mall manager Bob Chipeska (John Ritter, in his last screen role) - when caught in the plus size ladies dressing room having some extracurricular activity of the very naughty kind, Willie counters Bob's termination ideas with the retaliatory threat of picketing Black midgets! They're both caught short, though, when Gin Slagel (Bernie Mac), the mall's security man, figures out their scam and wants in on the take.
Meanwhile, Willie has inadvertently gotten himself an adoring fan, an overweight innocent who dreams of a stuffed pink elephant (a Freudian bond unrecognized by Willie). 'The kid' follows Willie and saves him from being beaten in the store parking lot. When Willie drives 'the kid' home, he discovers an upper middle class abode fitted out for his cavortings with no supervision save the kid's addled grandmother (Cloris Leachman). Willie explains to 'the kid' that Mrs. Klaus threw him out for schtupping her sister and makes himself at home, spending evenings in the hot tub with Sue (Lauren Graham), a bartender with a Santa fixation.
The Coen brothers' original idea was based in part on Walter Matthau's Coach Buttermaker in "The Bad News Bears" and "Bad Santa" is at its best when it focuses on Willie's relationship with the kids, especially 'the kid,' whom Willie usually refers to as 'a &*^%$ retard.' The reveal of the kid's real name is a watershed moment, as Willie can relate to the horrors of his own childhood in imaging his little buddy's torments. Another high point comes late in the film, when we realize that the blissed out kid has actually understood Willie's insanely lewd stories and adages all along. Through the eyes of the kid, Advent calendars and the nurturing euphoria of sandwich making become the essence of home. The heist plot, especially Gin's involvement, is dull, only intermittently amusing in that it reflects some of the madness that is at the heart of this story. The film's climax is outrageously over the top, a true subversion of the holiday movie.
Billy Bob Thornton is unabashedly foul as Willie, so crusted over with what life's dealt him that he has ceased to feel. His take-it-or-leave-it, hilariously vile behavior is brilliantly paired with Kelly's accepting innocence. When Thornton unravels, his spitting, screaming explosions are a cover for the confusion that the kid unsettles in him. Lauren Graham is also a plus as the cutely perverse barmaid who, like the kid, sees something redeeming in Willie. Tony Cox has little to do other than object to his partner's shortcomings and Bernie Mac does nothing but deliver his lines - Cloris Leachman gives a lot more with nothing but body language and one line of dialogue. John Ritter offers nothing new as the cowed manager, but at least his last performance is in a memorably weird project.
"Bad Santa" is a movie for those who prefer their humor brutal. It's like "Bad Lieutenant" with holiday spirit - the anti-"Elf."
Robin did not see this film.
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