Bad Santa

2003, Movie, R, 95 mins


Bad is right, unless the sight of a soused department-store Santa wetting himself in front of a gaggle of tiny tots, eyes all aglow, could be said to constitute holiday cheer. Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) may be a gin-soaked draft dodger with a prison record and a string of ex-wives, but he can crack a safe like nobody's business. The art of pulling a proper box job is one of the few things Willie's abusive pappy ever gave him — that, plus deep-seated self-hatred and a drinking problem that keeps Willie in a blind stupor most of the day. Not exactly department-store Santa material, but Willie doesn't do it for the kids; once a year he and his partner, a pint-sized dwarf named Marcus (Tony Cox), hire themselves out to an unsuspecting department store as a Santa and elf team. When Christmas Eve rolls around, Marcus hides out after closing time and shuts off the security system, after which Santa and elf help themselves to the contents of the store's safe. So far they've cleaned out seven stores in seven years, and they've always gotten away clean. This year, however, might be a problem. Marcus, the brains behind the operation, lands them a plum gig at Chamberlain's department store in sunny Phoenix, but Willie's drinking has gotten out of control. The mall's uptight general manager (John Ritter) suspects something isn't quite right, and the in-store dick (Bernie Mac) knows exactly what Willie and Marcus are up to and wants a cut. Complicating matters further is the sudden appearance of a strange, chubby kid (Brett Kelly) who lives with his dotty grandmother (Cloris Leachman, in a thankless role that could have been played by a tree stump) and seems to think Willie's really Santa Claus. Quite a bit of talent went into this holiday turkey, which was produced by Joel and Ethan Coen and directed by Terry Zwigoff (CRUMB, GHOST WORLD). The cast is actually very good; Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) is kind of cute as an alcoholic bartender with a Santa fetish. But the screenplay just isn't funny: Most jokes fall flat and lie there in a pool of their own sick. And while Zwigoff's deadpan pacing was perfect for the wry, sophisticated humor of GHOST WORLD, here it's a comedy killer; that extra beat after each new outrage is just long enough for viewers to realize just how sad and disturbing it all is. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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