You may never hear as much swearing around kids as in "Bad Santa." There are some lessons here:
2. Don't see "Bad Santa" if you're offended by swearing around kids.
But for those who can laugh at the profane, who miss the toxic bite of early National Lampoon, who long for a comedy that would rather offend some than please everyone, who now require insulin shots from prolonged exposure to "Love Actually," who tire of Christmas cheer being rammed down their throats, here's a movie for you.
"Bad Santa" is the foulest holiday movie I've ever seen - and the funniest. Contrary to some shrill advance reports, the movie doesn't portray Santa as a drunken, potty-mouthed, incontinent, horny, suicidal thief. No, it portrays a guy who pretends to be Santa as a drunken, potty-mouthed, incontinent, horny, suicidal thief. So all of you Santa purists can breathe a sigh of relief and go enjoy Ed Asner in "Elf" again.
Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie, who spends the year drinking himself into oblivion until the holiday season, when he reteams with an even more foul-mouthed black dwarf named Marcus (Tony Cox, the memorably ornery little person from "Me, Myself and Irene") to play a department store Santa and elf. On Christmas Eve the pair rob the store and its safe, and then Willie has drinking money for the following year.
Thornton has played sad sacks before, but none has compared with Willie, who kicks off the movie with a hilarious voice-over grumble about his abusive dad and pathetic life (yes, the humor is pitch black) and how he got drafted for Vietnam and "had to spend two years in Mexico for no reason." He stumbles into an alley in his Santa outfit, begins to retch, and up comes the title "Bad Santa."
The Coen brothers executive produced "Bad Santa," and their deadpan sensibility is evident. But the movie boasts far more go-for-broke spirit than the Coens' own recent comedy "Intolerable Cruelty," which felt muted in its effort to reach the mainstream. It's also much sharper than you'd expect from "Cats & Dogs" writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.
It's bracing to see a comedy that doesn't attempt to soften its characters' rough edges. You're repeatedly appalled at what's coming out of Willie's and Marcus' mouths, and that's fine, because humor stems from subverting viewers' expectations.
One expectation would be for "Bad Santa" to look down on Willie (as the Coens often do with their characters), but Thornton never distances himself from him, and the movie views him, if not sympathetically, then at least at eye level. That sensibility is consistent with director Terry Zwigoff, whose previous movies were "Ghost World" and "Crumb."
All three movies embrace characters living on the margins, so-called losers with anti-social tendencies and idiosyncratic passions. Willie is the most extreme of these, but Zwigoff is making a semi-serious point by spotlighting people otherwise ignored in mainstream films: those whose Christmases have more to do with lumps of coal than sugarplum fairies.
That's why "Bad Santa," without sentimentality, is able to sell you on the eventual bond between Willie and the snot-nosed 8-year-old boy (Brett Kelly) who adopts him as his pal. This picked-on, tubby nerd is so clear-eyed and steadfast that he comes to seem heroic.
"Bad Santa" is full of tell-your-friends (but not your kids) kind of lines, almost none of which are printable. OK, I'll try one: Willie and Marcus have been downing shots at a bar, and Willie gets annoyed that Marcus doesn't want another round. Marcus shoots him a withering look and retorts, "I weigh 92 pounds, you [expletive]."
The able supporting cast includes the late John Ritter as a timid mall manager, a formidable Bernie Mac as the mall security chief who doesn't miss a trick and Lauren Graham as a Santa-loving bartender.
The swearing and drunken stumbling do get a bit repetitive, and some of the broad bits toward the end don't work. But "Bad Santa" is no gross-out comedy. Its rudeness springs from its characters, not gags.
Look, people who prefer sunny holiday visions have no shortage of options. This movie isn't for them. Meanwhile, the anti-sentimentality contingent should find the nasty stench of "Bad Santa" to be a breath of fresh air.
Directed by Terry Zwigoff; written by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; photographed by Jamie Anderson; edited by Robert Hoffman; production designed by Sharon Seymour; music by David Kitay; produced by John Cameron, Sarah Aubrey, Bob Weinstein. A Dimension Films release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1:31. MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language, strong sexual content and some violence).
Willie.....Billy Bob Thornton
The Kid.....Brett Kelly
Mall Manager.....John Ritter