'Tis the season--to be a callous, alcoholic jerk. At least, that's what season it is if you're a man who consistently spends it dressed up as Santa Claus perpetrating the same con every year on a local mall with the help of a less-than-happy little elf.
Willie T. Stokes ((Billy Bob Thornton) is seriously on the skids. He may dress up like Santa Claus, but his nose ain't red 'cause he's cold; he's a pretty nasty alcoholic when we first meet him, and it's all downhill from there. His disgruntled elf-of-color, Marcus (Tony Cox) is the brains of their operation, a scam that involves getting hired at the local mall as Santa and his elf, having their picture taken with hundreds of little kids day after day and, at the end of it all, making off with the contents of the mall's safe and whatever haberdasheries strike Marcus' wife's fancy. When they hit Phoenix, however, things change for the foul-mouthed, bad-tempered Santa when a weird kid (Brett Kelly) saves him from an attempted assault by a gay rapist (Ajay Naidu, aka, the Hindustani guy from Office Space). Santa takes the boy home and, once there, robs his sole caretaker, his senile grandmother (Cloris Leachman). The kid's dad, it seems, has gone on an ''extended vacation,'' and the poor boy hasn't gotten any presents for two years. As if that wasn't enough, the kid's no Tiny Tim--he's overweight, not very bright and gets picked on all the time at school. (We don't learn his name until the film's nearly over, but once it's out there, it's pretty clear why the poor boy's persecuted.) Of course, none of this changes Willie's heart, but the big guy in the suit knows a good thing when he sees it. Granny's house is sweet and her liquor cabinet is well stocked, so he moves in and ends up bonding with the kid in spite of himself.
It's refreshing, if not heartwarming, to see Santa Claus sucking down whisky with as much panache as Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas while reciting such poetry of the season as, ''Nothing has ever sucked more ass than this.'' While this line could have been prophetic, considering the somewhat risky premise and ominous title of Bad Santa, Billy Bob Thornton has fun with the role, and that helps the audience have fun with him. Even when his character is suicidal, Thornton never lets things get too morose, and he never lets go of Bad Santa's fundamental badness--even when his character starts to care about the kid, who's at his best when he's at his most annoying, asking questions about the North Pole and the reindeer and the elves and responding to Thornton's screaming and cussing with a wide-eyed stare, a beat and a blink before moving on to the next topic. With timing like this, Kelly is a pro in the making. Bernie Mac, as the chain-smoking head of mall security, has great zing with Cox when they ad lib on screen; their heated exchanges are among the movie's high points. The late John Ritter also gives his final film performance as the mall manager (the film is dedicated to his memory).
Bad Santa takes a few potshots at the season's commercialism, but it's not necessarily the main theme of the movie as it often is in films with a cynical take on Christmas. At the same time, even though Willie has a change of heart because of the kid and tries to give him a real Christmas, Bad Santa keeps its edge and refuses to get cheesy. Executive producers Joel and Ethan Coen may have a little to do with that, but it's director Terry Zwigoff's (Ghost World) utter fearlessness when it comes to the really bad stuff--booze, sex, exploitation, anger, manipulation, cruelty, selfishness--that makes the movie. Screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are equally bold in their writing style; the script is well written and the dialogue for the most part lively and amusing, if a little hard on virgin ears--there's a lot of profanity in this movie, but hey, some people like that shit.
Bad Santa is fine holiday fare--if by holiday you mean a day for a mean-spirited Santa to take stuff from other people, cuss up a storm and drink 'til he pukes. But if you can't laugh at a guy like that on Christmas, when can you laugh at him?