Bad Santa

(2003) ** 1/2 R
95 min. Dimension. Director: Terry Zwigoff. Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac, John Ritter, Lauren Tom, Lauren Graham.

The way I see it, the sour Bad Santa has two comic assets (neither of which should be underestimated): a funny cast, headlined by Billy Bob Thornton, and more swearing than American cinema has heard since Quentin Tarantino and Sam Jackson last got together. Take away those assets (leaving the script and direction), and you have another godawful Adam Sandler movie. But the assets remain, making Bad Santa a camp classic of sorts with a few gut-level laughs.

Premises don't get much more one-note than this: Thornton plays a thieving, alcoholic department-store Santa. If there's a second note, it's the one which eventually and unconvincingly betrays the film's misanthropy: the Santa's relationship with a lonely, overweight child named Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly). Purportedly, the Coen brothers, who co-executive produce for favored star Thornton devised the idea for the film themselves (the screenplay's by Cats and Dogs scribes Glenn Ficarra and John Requa).

The story of Bad Santa--actually Willie T. Soke--certainly suggests the oeuvre of W.C. Fields in its squinting, grimacing comedy of misery, but Fields's larger-than-life persona and vaudevillian manner blunted the effect of his hilariously ugly punchlines. Thornton's bourbon-drenched Soke runs on the actor's practiced deadpan, but a post-Method W.C. Fields endangers the free issuance of laughter; after all, Willie's vicious verbal abuse targets the guileless Thurman, the polar opposite of a Fields-style brat.

The film's finest moment, not surprisingly, capitalizes on Thornton's low-key abilities. In a mall locker room, Thornton slumps in the foreground, somehow both gaunt and jowly like a Robert Crumb caricature of himself, with a little person doffing his humiliating elf costume in the background. The punchline, delivered in the wake of a scene in which Willie viciously beats a teen bully, is devastatingly funny: "You know, I think I've turned a corner." This comic-book frame--which places Bad Santa in the context of Zwigoff's Crumb and Ghost World--also represents one of only a handful of stylish moments in Zwigoff's otherwise flat direction: a highway plod emphasizing the height differential between disheveled Santa Willie and elf Marcus (Tony Cox), a dizzying drop for the drunken Willie, and the use of snippets of Chopin, Thaichowsky, Shostakovich, and Puccini to counterpoint the puerile mindset (Verdi's Anvil Chorus accompanies the destruction of one department store).

The late John Ritter (in whose loving memory the film is dedicated) flings tics as a store manager who, hoping to fire Willie without reprisal, asks his security chief (Bernie Mac) to get sufficient dirt. Ritter and Mac are reliably amusing, and Thornton aims at the former a funny (and unprintable) rant about the political repurcussions of firing the Santa-elf duo. Cox's vitriolic partner-in-crime also scores chuckles.

Sounds pretty good, right? But the rest emphasizes garden-variety humor dunked in the profane: substantial stretches of the film repeat the joke of a half-dressed Santa acting viciously, drunkenly, and/or lasciviously. Multiple Santa's Village scenes rely on decades-old jokes of the true hellishness in store for the "jolly old elf" when kids step up to the lap: projectile vomit, dopey requests, tests to his veracity. Zwigoff wastes Gilmore Girls star Lauren Graham as an incredible Santa fetishist whose only real plot function is gleefully to hump Thornton. Among other sitcom-mined situations: Thurman must learn to fight his bullies, leading to a crotch-walloping scene representing the lowest of the film's comedy.

Bad Santa revels in the profane, but backs away from the purely black-comic ending it deserves. Still, that the most sentimental moment involves a bloody, wooden pickle affirms the film's ballsiness. Finally, a film that can be double-billed with 1992's Shakes the Clown, which Carrie Rickey rightly called "the Citizen Kane of alcoholic-clown movies."

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