‘Bad Santa’ naughty, but nice

  • Andrea Miller<br>Enterprise features editor
  • Thursday, February 28, 2008 8:34am

Leave your preconceived notions of what a Christmas film should be at the theater doors when you line up to see the new film, “Bad Santa.” Most importantly, leave anyone under the age of 17 at home on this one: this is not your “warm fuzzy” holiday movie.

The clue here is the title: “Bad Santa.” The R rating should also serve as an obvious warning. Willie Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) is no Jolly Old Elf. He is a drunken, foul mouthed, foul tempered Santa whose only mission in life is to crawl inside a bottle. His 36 inch tall sidekick/handler, Marcus (Tony Cox) suits up as a Christmas elf and together they travel the country, offering their low rent services to bottom line eyeing department store managers. The partners in crime tolerate their seasonal gig only because on Christmas Eve, they crack the department store safe and take off with the loot.

Things get complicated for Willie when he first takes up with a bartender with a Santa fetish (Lauren Graham of “Gilmore Girls”), then becomes the fixation of a fat, lonely 8-year-old (Brett Kelly), who inconceivably seems to believe that Willie is the real Santa. Taking advantage of the boy’s wide-eyed, dopey devotion, Willie moves into the affluent home the boy shares with his spacy grandmother (Cloris Leachman). Meanwhile, the burglary con may be unraveling as the prudish store manager (John Ritter in his last role) shares his suspicions about the unsavory Santa and elf team with a less than scrupulous mall detective (Bernie Mac).

That plot encapsulation really only scratches the surface of what makes “Bad Santa” a hysterically funny and oddly poignant film. Terry Zwigoff, the inspired director of such off-beat indie films as “Crumb” and “Ghost World,” is backed up on this effort by producers Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo,” “Miller’s Crossing”), who share his affinity for exploiting the dark comedy of the human condition. The film works because the relationships Willie develops with the bartender and the boy eventually feel real; while they begin to transform him, they do so only ever so slightly. The profanity, sexual situations and substance abuse woven into the film aren’t that far off from the lives many people live — and may be closer to home than we’d like to think.

So let’s recap: this is not a film for children, teenagers, or anyone even remotely offended by the profuse use of obscenities, sex and violence. That being said, it offers a far more realistic and honest portrayal of human relationships than any number of films I’ve seen over the last several months.

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