Profane comedy starring Billy Bob Thornton as a department-store Kris Kringle with booze, booty and felony-theft dysfunctions. Talent and uniquely dyspeptic mood separate this effort from populist stabs at tasteless yukkage. Film has a definite cult life ahead of it. Immediate theatrical biz may prove short in the general multiplex world.

A correction was made to this review on Nov. 23, 2003.

Somewhere far beyond naughty vs. nice lies “Bad Santa,” an aggressively profane comedy starring Billy Bob Thornton as a department-store Kris Kringle with booze, booty and felony-theft dysfunctions. First-rate talent and a uniquely dyspeptic mood separate this effort from more routine, populist stabs at tasteless yukkage, such as the Rob Schneider oeuvre. But it’s nonetheless largely a one-joke concept that — while sometimes very funny — will no doubt engender hostile response from many mainstream critics. Dimension Films release has a definite cult life ahead of it. Immediate theatrical biz may prove short in the general multiplex world, but longer wherever cynical urban hipsters get tipped to perverse pic’s appeal.

Helmer Terry Zwigoff reportedly wrangled with producers over edits that brought the feature down to a manageable R rating. What’s left will still offend plenty. If the terrific “Ghost World” heralded Zwigoff as an exception to the generic jinx on gifted documentarians entering fictive terrain (e.g. Michael Moore’s “Canadian Bacon,” Errol Morris’ “The Dark Wind”), this follow-up may suggest to some that bad luck just simply skipped a feature — while others will find “Santa” a refreshing gust of ill wind amid formulaic major-studio product.

Chopin-scored opening shot sums it up, as camera pans down a bar of cheerful yuppie holiday revelers to settle on Santa-suited Willie T. Stokes (Thornton), alone, well-lubricated, explaining his misanthropic self in dour voiceover. The title graphic arrives just in time to emphasize Willie upchucking in a back-alley.

Apparently raised in unpleasant circumstances by a dad who taught him one thing — how to crack a safe — Willie survives on proceeds from his annual teaming with three-foot-tall Marcus (Tony Cox). Each Yuletide they take jobs as Santa and his elf-helper, gaining access to heavily trafficked stores which they then rob blind after hours on Christmas Eve.

Marcus is a natural at the con. But sloppy-alcoholic, tail-chasing Willie is a liability. Shamed by his cohort’s post-ripoff diatribe, this “bad Santa” vows he’ll give up drink and go legit. Fat chance.

In Phoenix, they get holiday jobs at a mall managed by squeaky-clean Bob (the late John Ritter). This supervisor is immediately discomfited by Willie’s potty-mouthed, randy behavior, but despite several outrageous incidents, he’s afraid to fire the pair for fear of a discrimination lawsuit (re: Marcus’ double-threat status as an African-American “little person”).

Meanwhile, Willie’s ill-tempered, inebriated dealings with the children on his lap win him a fan in the ample form of a picked-on, plus-sized kid (Brett Kelly), who’s being raised by a senile grandma (Cloris Leachman in a nearly silent role).

The boy is willing to overlook anything — even “Santa’s” drunken, cuss-mouthed, skirt-chasing behavior — to get some “paternal” support. When Willie finds his motel room being rifled by mall security chief Gin (Bernie Mac), he moves into the child’s tiny suburban house.

It’s in the scenes between pasty-faced Kelly and Thornton that “Bad Santa” will most polarize aud response. It’s not so much that latter’s eventual dawning of fatherly instinct, or their mutual slow-growth bond, are unfelt sentimental gambits. Problem is that Thurman (the child, his name revealed very late) is so pathetically needy, and Willie such a drastically inapt dad figure, that their sequences together come off more painful than poignant. The rudeness of language and incident in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s script renders the evolution toward bonding grotesque, within pic’s extreme-comedy context.

The comedic content registers erratically, reflecting the difficulty in ringing infinite variations on a basic high-contrast between scrubbed, middle-class Christmas spirit and the central figures’ colorful vulgarity. Innumerable over-the-top situations (some no doubt toned down from an earlier NC-17 form) are occasionally hilarious, other times just distasteful. Pic lacks the character depth that might render certain sequences (like Willie’s very public drunken Waterloo at the mall, his suicide attempt, or the kid’s self-inflicted accidental knife wound) seriocomically sharp rather than just psychologically bleak.

The climactic chase and shootout only heightens that disjunction, though an epilogue duly softens matters.

No one could have played the lead role better than Thornton, though he does little he hasn’t before — this part is essentially a filthier-mouthed version of the misanthrope memorably played in exec producers Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” Cox shows considerable flair delivering various rants about Willie’s lifestyle, while Bernie Mac makes the most of his scenes as their nemesis.

Lauren Graham offers a game but slippery impression (possibly thwarted by cuts) as a bartender who very much enjoys her sex-play with “Santa.” Lauren Tom is funny but underused as Marvin’s materialistic girlfriend. Ritter (to whom the film is dedicated) scores several hysterical reaction shots as the most puritanically appalled audience to both Thornton and Mac’s beyond-blunt language.

Most notable element to design package is a witty soundtrack of incongruous, familiar classical themes and chirpsome kitsch holiday tunes. Other contribs are pro but undistinguished.

Bad Santa

Production

A Dimension Films release of a Triptych Pictures production. Produced by John Cameron, Sarah Aubrey, Bob Weinstein. Executive producers, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Co-producer, David Crockett. Co-executive producers, Harvey Weinstein, Brad Weston. Directed by Terry Zwigoff. Screenplay, Glenn Ficarra, John Requa.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Jamie Anderson; editor, Robert Hoffman; music, David Kitay; music supervisor, Rachel Levy; production designer, Sharon Seymour; art director, Peter Borck; set designers, Lynn Christopher, Natalie Richardson; set decorator, Robert Greenfield Jr.; costume designer, Wendy Chuck; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Mark Weingarten, Lee Orloff; supervising sound editors, Larry Kemp, Michael Benavente; assistant director, Jim Hensz; casting, Mary Vernieu, Felicia Fasano. Reviewed at UA Galaxy, San Francisco, Nov. 13, 2003. MPAA rating: R. Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Willie T. Stokes - Billy Bob Thornton Marcus - Tony Cox The Kid - Brett Kelly Sue - Lauren Graham Lois - Lauren Tom Gin - Bernie Mac Bob Chipeska - John Ritter Hindustani Troublemaker - Ajay Naidu Milwaukee Mom with Photo - Alex Borstein Grandmother - Cloris Leachman
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