On Screen

'Santa': A Hearty Heh-Heh-Heh

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 28, 2003

IF YOU cringe at the notion that all Christmas movies should involve some sort of miracle on 34th Street, and you're having trouble understanding why "Elf" is making money, have I got the flick for you. It's called "Bad Santa," and it's naughty, not nice.

Make that very naughty.

In Terry Zwigoff's movie, Billy Bob Thornton is a department store Santa who curses, burps and lurches his way through crowds of kids -- the ones eagerly lined up to tell him their Christmas wishes. What's his game? Turns out, he's Willie T. Stokes , a safecracker working with 3-foot-tall partner Marcus (Tony Cox), who plays his elf. When each Christmas season is done, Willie and Marcus pocket their checks and say goodbye, only to return that night to crack the safe.

Their latest store, this one in somewheresville Arizona, proves to be the decisive one, but not in the manner they anticipated. The problems are there from the start. There's the fussy store manager (an amusing John Ritter, in one of his final performances), who knows there's something kerflooey about this Santa, and a security detective (Bernie Mac) who misses nothing.

And then there are the more personal matters: an attractive, free-spirited woman named Sue (Lauren Graham), who has this ceaseless desire to, uh, spend private time with anyone dressed like Santa. And most significantly of all (though it doesn't seem that way at first), there's an unnamed, 8-year-old pudgy boy (Brett Kelly) who seems to think Willie is the real thing. It's clear the kid has serious issues. His father is in the slammer for a white-collar crime, and he lives with his oddball grandmother (Cloris Leachman) in a big house. He invites Santa to live with them. Willie sees all kinds of filching opportunities there. What he doesn't realize is, he just met his match.

One of the biggest problems of all is Willie himself. Clearly a drunk, he can hardly reach his Santa chair without toppling over. His treatment of the children is offensive, with language that could burn the fir off any Christmas tree. He jumps on women whenever he sees the opportunity, and he even wets himself in the chair on one occasion. It's as much as Marcus can do to keep Willie from destroying their cover.

Clearly, "Bad Santa" is not for anyone who considers Christmas too sacrosanct to joke about. Nor is it for anyone who can't handle watching a verbally abusive adult and children in the same scene, no matter how satirical or bleakly humorous the situation. But for you indecent, scurrilous rascals with an elastic sense of humor, "Bad Santa" is a subversive riot.

Director Zwigoff, who made "Crumb" and "Ghost World," continues an inspired, countercultural streak with this one, and screenwriters John Requa and Glenn Ficarra entirely redeem themselves for having written "Cats & Dogs."

Perhaps any good actor would have done well in the central role. But Thornton, with his one-of-a-kind drawl, his lazy gaze, restless shaggy eyebrows and misanthropic attitude, seems to be the movie's essential X-factor. He makes an entertaining and, of course, socially reprehensible spectacle of himself. In doing so, he frees the audience to enjoy his badness. At first, your reaction is stunned disbelief. But after you've warmed up to Willie's ways, he becomes increasingly amusing. Suddenly, you're looking at life in his jaundiced way and laughing with a sense of vicarious liberation, even when he says the most outrageous things -- to children, no less. And I daresay you can still recover your holiday spirit when you're through laughing.

BAD SANTA (R, 93 minutes) -- Contains pervasive obscenity, sexual content and some violence. Area theaters.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company