"Bad Santa" is a Christmas movie that Lenny Bruce could love. A comedy about a full-time cynic who works as a part-time department store Santa, this is a superb stink bomb of an entertainment, generously larded with jokes about alcoholics, short people, dim children and the kind of sexual congress that until recently was illegal in nine states. If the film were sent out as a screener, I wouldn't ship it off to the relatives — I would fire it up again on Dec. 25 and bask in the glow of its obdurate Grinchitude.
"Bad Santa" doesn't just skewer the sacred cow known as the department store Santa — it slices and dices it into thick, juicy chunks, then tosses the pieces on a roaring flame. Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie T. Stokes, an unreconstructed boozehound, chain smoker and serial philanderer who subsists on gallons of whiskey and an occasional fried baloney sandwich. A one-man Saturnalia, Willie spends most of the year perfecting his down-and-dirty naughty act before donning a threadbare red suit and a beard as white as week-old snow for his annual Santa stint. Once ensconced in a new gig, Willie and his elf-playing partner, Marcus (Tony Cox), shimmy past the department store security system so they can carry off sacks of purloined presents and loot.
Written with malicious wit by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (the pair lent a hand to the new "Looney Tunes" comedy), the film's story originated with executive producers Joel and Ethan Coen, whose acid humor and unsentimentalism dovetail seamlessly with director Terry Zwigoff's sad-sack deadpan. Best known for the documentary "Crumb" and his splenetic coming-of-age story, "Ghost World," Zwigoff doesn't possess the Coens' pop zip and zing — his indifferent visual style makes that case plainly enough — but he has a hard-to-fake dolorous vibe you could cut with a knife. And, as he proved with Thora Birch and Scarlett Johannson in "Ghost World" and proves again here with Thornton, Zwigoff has a talent for helping actors deliver empathetic performances that don't compromise or soften their characters.
Thornton, his rubbery features usually swirled in a soft-serve sneer, plays Willie with uncompromising rancor. Although a no-account father stalks his memory, Willie is essentially bereft of psychological and historical exegesis. A man whose talent for expletives would give Dr. Dre pause, he lives to drink and drinks to live, a commitment that takes surprisingly little toll on his other passion — bedding, sometimes while inside a changing room in the "Three Times a Lady" department, every woman he can. The idea that Willie can drink this much and play the part of a consummate Casanova is one of the stronger cues that the film doesn't take place in the recognizable here and now but in the gently askew realism familiar from "Ghost World" and any number of Coen brothers films.
In that world — one populated by lonely girl geeks, comic-book artists, freaked-out Vietnam vets and flimflam artists with pencil mustaches — life doesn't look or play out like a Hollywood movie. In movies like "Ghost World" and the underappreciated Coen comedy "The Big Lebowski," the characters are outsiders as much by choice as by nature. Exaggerated, tweaked to the point of caricature and beyond, these characters can't get a hang of the straight world and don't want to even try. For them, life is a sad and unrelenting joke, which is why they roll with the punch lines with equanimity. The Coens can be sadistic creeps (the death of an asthmatic hit man in "Intolerable Cruelty" shows them at their worst), but when a film works as well as "Lebowski" it can carry a sting that's truer than most documentaries.
"Bad Santa" isn't as richly conceived as "Lebowski" or the less rollicking "Ghost World," but like those films it unapologetically exults in its characters' glorious imperfection. It's good to know that oddballs, outcasts and people who don't look like Barbie and Ken still have a place in American movies and that not everyone in Hollywood pays lip service to the nice and polite. The supporting cast finds its warped groove effortlessly, beginning with Cox, who as the organizational brains behind the larcenous duo bobs and weaves around Thornton, gunning his motor mouth with startling ferocity. For his part, Bernie Mac, king of the slow burn (a talent Zwigoff immortalizes with a great sight gag), serves a beautifully hostile counterpoint to the late John Ritter, whose turn as a put-upon mall manager is a model of comic portraiture.
Last week, Lou Dobbs worked himself into a lather about "Bad Santa," closing his CNN program with a mini-review of the film. "It features a booze-crazed, thieving, skirt-chasing version of good old St. Nick," said Dobbs. "Instead of climbing down chimneys and delighting youngsters all around the world, this Kris Kringle is more interested in picking up chicks and shouting profanities at kids. It's an unthinkable, in my opinion, assault on the senses and certainly an assault on the sensibilities of all that's wonderful about a cherished childhood icon." That's a fair précis (and one heck of a recommendation!), except that it misses the movie by a couple of miles. Characters like Willie, Marcus and the rest don't live in a Dobbsian world — they gnaw away at its gilded edges, grabbing what little they can.
Of course, Thornton isn't playing the St. Nick of Clement C. Moore's poem, but the sort who shills for department stores by stoking tiny-tot consumer lust. Willie and Marcus are the story's nominal bad guys, yet what they do to the stores comes across as less bad than what stores do to their smallest customers. It would gild the lily to claim too much of a social conscience for "Bad Santa"; the movie is too busy squeezing out cheap laughs to over-worry that burden. But neither is there any denying that its cobwebbed heart is as firmly in place as the filmmakers' commitment to their material. From his hectoring exchanges with an 8-year-old outcast (newcomer Brett Kelly) to his dalliances with a Santa fetishist (Lauren Graham), Willie is the sort of holiday gift that keeps on giving all the way to the shockingly bitter, funny end.
MPAA rating: R, pervasive language, strong sexual content and some violence
Times guidelines: Not your 5-year-old's Santa. Strong adult language, some sex, some violence, a little blood, a lot of booze. Parents take note.
Billy Bob Thornton ... Willie T. Stokes
Tony Cox ... Marcus
Lauren Graham ... Sue
Brett Kelly ... the kid
John Ritter ... Bob Chipeska
Bernie Mac ... Gin
Dimension Films presents a Triptych production, released by Dimension Films. Director Terry Zwigoff. Writers Glenn Ficarra, John Requa. Producers John Cameron, Sarah Aubrey, Bob Weinstein. Director of photography Jamie Anderson. Production designer Sharon Seymour. Editor Robert Hoffman. Costume designer Wendy Chuck. Music David Kitay. Casting Mary Vernieu, Felicia Fasano. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.
In general release.