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The S Word

Bad Santa, in which Billy Bob Thornton plays a drunken department-store Santa who repeatedly swears at children, pisses himself publicly, chain-smokes like an industrial plant, and cracks safes on Christmas Eve, is the least sentimental holiday release ever made. No one is redeemed, no one comes to believe in the spirit of Christmas, no one experiences any Christmas miracles. It exists as the perfect antidote to the noxious elixir served up like sour eggnog each holiday season to parents looking for a cineplex babysitter starting November 1. You can't see Bad Santa and then feel at all good about liking even something as cheerfully innocuous as Elf, which is cute enough and inspired in spots but ultimately just one more entry in the ho-ho-ho-hum feel-good holiday sweepstakes. Moms and dads, you have been warned.

Whenever Bad Santa even looks in the direction of sentimentality, it promptly juts out its middle finger, mutters a drunken "fuck you," and staggers off. Terry Zwigoff, director of Crumb and Ghost World, and Joel and Ethan Coen, who polished the screenplay, have no interest in making you feel good, only making you laugh till, like Thornton's Willie Stokes, you piss yourself. For that reason, among many, it's a welcome gift at year's end -- bleak, nasty, raunchy, kind of truthful, and absolutely hysterical.

Willie (Thornton) and his partner, an African-American dwarf named Marcus (Tony Cox), despise each other. Marcus thinks his partner a drunk with a rotten soul and shaky hands who's becoming more unreliable with each passing holiday; he tells Willie constantly how pathetic he is and useless he has become, though the self-loathing Willie needs no reminding. Willie thinks Marcus a greedy troll with a mail-order bride. They're bound only by greed and the hatred of all things Christmas. But theirs is a good gimmick, at least passable enough to an uptight Phoenix department-store manager (John Ritter, in what can only be considered a most twisted send-off) looking to hire cheap holiday help.

Willie smokes and drinks and relieves himself while on duty and curses repeatedly at the children who dare sit on his lap to utter their Christmas wishes. It's enough to raise the suspicions of the department store's head of security (Bernie Mac), a chain-smoker with a laxative addiction. Willie would rather screw large women in the dressing rooms -- he can stand behind a gal, Santa pants around his ankles, telling her, "You ain't gonna shit right for a week" -- than talk to little children. But there is one child who becomes unavoidable: Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), a kid with snot crusted on his upper lip and urine staining the underpants often wedged up his crack by bullies.

In any other film, Willie would bring out the man in the boy, and the boy would soften a grownup's hard heart; 'tis the oldest tale told, and it usually stars Adam Sandler. But Willie has little use for the kid and believes Thurman little more than a "retarded Mongoloid." But he can serve a purpose: Thurman lives in a giant house with only a doddering, near-dead grandmother (Cloris Leachman) and can provide Willie with suitable shelter till Christmas Eve's caper. It's also a place he can bring his new bartending girlfriend, Sue (Gilmore Girl Lauren Graham), who, being raised Jewish, has a thing for a man in a Santa suit (it is something "forbidden") and loves nothing more than to screw him in the hot tub in Thurman's back yard while yelling, "Fuck me, Santa! Fuck me, Santa!"

Were you to delete fuck from the screenplay, the movie might in fact run half its 90 minutes; remove other curse words, and it might fit into a short teaser trailer for coming attractions. But it's more than the sum of its curse words: Bad Santa is as surreal as it is obscene, as clever as it is crude. It plays like some crude offspring of underground comix and the comedies of the 1920s, as though Willie and Marcus were Laurel and Hardy with Thurman as their Joe Cobb (and he does bear a frightening resemblance to the doughy Our Gang member). There are scenes stolen from Marx Brothers movies, musical cues out of Warner Bros. cartoons, and slapstick scenes that play like Buster Keaton on a three-day bender of booze and rage, among them ones including an attempted gay rape and numerous punches to places men do not like to be hit.

One has to wonder how many small children were scarred in the making of Bad Santa, as they listened to Thornton berate them and watched him destroy their visions of a loving, giving Santa. Toward the film's end, Zwigoff includes a scene that suggests even he can't believe what he's gotten away with. This may be why Bad Santa has moved in recent days from being an entertainment-page story to a page two brief in your local newspaper -- real news, in other words. Disney, which distributes the movies made by Miramax, is not at all thrilled with Zwigoff's film. Reportedly, sources close to Disney honcho Michael Eisner say their boss believes the "movie borders on being sick" and is "not in the spirit of Walt Disney." And to quote Willie Stokes, during one of his more cogent moments, "Thank the fuck Christ."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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