Saint Nick's Polar Opposite

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 26, 2003

"Bad Santa," for good or ill, has been demographically engineered for the smallest interest group in America: those who hate Christmas.

You know who you are. You see through everything. All institutions are corrupt, as are all belief systems. Folly prevails as the governing force in human transactions. When generosity, heroism, sacrifice or love are encountered, they are to be regarded as part of a delusion-inducing apparatus meant to disguise darker initiatives of command and control.

To you, the most beautiful words ever uttered were "Bah" and "humbug," by your hero, Ebenezer Scrooge.

These people occupy a strange psychological state that might be called "generally happy unhappiness," and they will love "Bad Santa," with its soul-deep dyspepsia, its cheerful blasphemy, the delight it takes in the trashing of all that is dear, sweet and holy.

As for the rest of you: Hello, that's why they have multiplexes. It's called, like, make another choice.

The joy of "Bad Santa" is that its Santa is really bad, continually bad, totally bad, but also humanly bad. The movie is too absorbed in the imagination of squalor for larger constructs like mythology, grandeur or evil. It simply asserts that people are too crummy, Christmas is too fake, the music is too cheesy and those lights give you a headache. It doesn't have the vision for a Nosferatu, a Hannibal Lecter, a Jesse James.

At the same time, it's not at all sentimental about its bad hero. He's not a cute, "outrageous" curmudgeon, like an Archie Bunker. He's banally bad, vile and scuzzy; he has hooch-halitosis and stains under his armpits. His signature chant isn't "Ho, ho, ho," it's "Me, me, me." He's so bad, he might give bad a bad name. He's white-trashy, drunken, abusive, profane, sexually pathological, tied so tight in his own knot of self-hatred he's hardly recognizable as human -- that is, unless you look in the mirror. I can't quote a single one of his lines because I just checked The Washington Post's dash drawer, and we're a little short today. Plenty of semicolons and umlauts and accents in there for the foreign correspondents, but not nearly enough dashes for me to quote a line like: "Kid, why don't you get the -- -- out of here before I -- -- kick your -- -- ," and that's where I run out of dashes.

Why is this the role Billy Bob Thornton (who will be seen in a few months as a clean-shaven Col. Davy Crockett in "The Alamo") was born to play? The answer isn't that Bill Murray turned it down, even after Joel and Ethan Coen (who co-produced) did a fast rewrite. No, the answer is: Probably because as an actor, Thornton alone seems beyond vanity, and beyond playing to the camera. He probably doesn't even know which side he photographs best from. He's exactly what so-called great actors like Sean Penn would be if they really had some guts, a performer who understands that food sometimes falls out of mouths, that dirt inscribes fingernails, that, more conceptually, idealization is the enemy of art.

Anyhow, Thornton's Willie T. Soke is a third-tier, tank-town department store pro, working the mall circuit, who works just two months a year, like so many others of his ilk. Except that, on the night of Dec. 24, his friend and manager Marcus (Tony Cox, a little person) will stop playing a Christmas elf and hide, lingering in the store after closing hours. Then, when all the boys and girls are in bed with visions of Nintendo and Jessica Simpson action figures dancing in their heads, he will pop the place from inside, readmitting Willie. Willie will uncover the tools he's smuggled in a piece at a time over November and December, and will set about to crack a safe all but bulgy with Christmas cash. With that stash, it's off to Florida for 10 months of staying drunk on cheap wine while living on dirty sheets in a $38-a-night motel.

That's been the caper for many Christmases, but Willie T., ever more pickled, ever more sick at his own fecklessness, his helplessness, his inability to resist his appetites, is taking ever so much longer to get the box open. One of these Holy Days, he's not going to make it and will be then introduced to his new roommate and fiance, 6-foot-8-inch inmate No. 5493559 of Cell Block D. So Marcus -- here's a subplot -- is thinking he's going to have to make other arrangements.

To make it worse still, this Christmas -- at a bleak and cheerless mall in suburban Phoenix, where it's hard to feel Christmasy when it's 108 in the shade -- something strange happens. Willie T. meets a sad and lonely kid. The kid is even more pathetic than he is, a punching bag for older kids, a lump of lacerating self-loathing and -- this is such a fabulous, anti-movie touch -- not even very attractive. (Brett Kelly is fabulous as the forlorn boy.) Through his mean-dog stupor, his sexual opportunism, his frequent fits of apoplectic rage, Willie actually begins to . . . care.

Suddenly the criminal life is beginning to lose its luster, and in that wormy nest of pathology he calls a brain, Willie is beginning to see the possibility of some kind of provisional redemption. You can see where this one is going, and where it has to go. Not even Terry Zwigoff, who directed two brilliant films, "Crumb" and "Ghost World," has the guts to go the final three feet into all-out nihilism. So yes, the movie ends on a note of putative uplift, but to its credit it's small-scale, appropriate to the dismalness that is Bad Santa's place in the scheme of things.

The movie is -- how can I say this? -- funny as hell. It's like an old Mad magazine "Scenes We'd Like to See" put together by someone on crystal meth, with a vicious streak, an existentialist streak and no mercy anywhere in his soul and only the tiniest flinch at the end, which is probably, sigh, the best way to end. Bad Santa, at his baddest, just doesn't give (oh, look, some extra dashes!) a -- -- about anything. Put that in your chimney and smoke it, it seems to be saying to the world.

Bad Santa (93 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extreme profanity and a generally dyspeptic view of humanity.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company