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Photograph by Tracy Bennett

You're That Bad Santa Everybody's Talking About, Aren't You?: Bernie Mac (right) is on to Billy Bob Thornton in 'Bad Santa.'

Anti-Santa

Billy Bob Thornton's debauched Kris Kringle lights up the season in 'Bad Santa'

By Richard von Busack

Here's an instant holiday classic that would have made old Bukowski's bloodshot eyes shine. Bad Santa is a liver-warming winter's tale: a story of Christmas sharing as enacted by Billy Bob Thornton (reprising, to better effect, his dour bastard from The Man Who Wasn't There, directed by the Coen Brothers, who were the executive producers for this bonbon). San Francisco director Terry Zwigoff has dedicated himself to the works of underground cartoonists, from Robert Crumb (Crumb) to Dan Clowes (Ghost World). Zwigoff could be channeling undergrounder Kim Deitch in Bad Santa. The surreal drunken aggravation of Deitch's boozehounds seems a model for this appalling tale of an appalling season.

Bitter Willie T. Stokes (Thornton) works a regular holiday scam. He acts as a department-store Santa while his elf, or rather little-person assistant, Marcus (Tony Cox), hides in the stores at night in order to disable the burglar alarm. So far, this seasonal crime has worked. But Stokes would "drink the sweat off a grape," as the late musician Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong put it. Stokes' drunken, obscene antics are worsening with every new Santa gig.

What redeems this bad Santa is a little child, known as the Kid (the deadpan Brett Kelly, made up to look like Augustus Gloop). This Santa-loving reject lives in utter isolation in a Phoenix housing track, with his marbles-missing grandmother. Stokes moves in on the household and--just like all those Bukowski heroes--unaccountably attracts a classy girlfriend, a Santa fetishist played by Lauren Graham. Graham, who has a wicked smile, stars on TV's Gilmore Girls, a show that surpasses other sitcoms by the sharp trick of acting otherwise ordinary sitcom writing at double-speed. Bad Santa is proof there is more to Graham than the mannered performances a sitcom requires.

But Stokes also picks up a nemesis--the store's angry security chief (Bernie Mac). It's no news that Mac is a sensational comedian, pouring volumes of hostility into one fixed stare at the people who disturb him.

Some will find the script, by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, kind of one-joke: Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant in a snowsuit. Still, this must have been a happy break for the pair, who are known best for the Cats and Dogs franchise. The film is full of the tangible frustration of people who have been hired as entertainers for children (Cox, delightfully raspy here, had to play an Ewok once). The crying need for a movie like Bad Santa is all the more apparent in the face of Mike Myers, befurred and polluting the sacred texts of Dr. Seuss. If, as critic Carrie Rickey wrote, Shakes the Clown was the Citizen Kane of drunk-clown movies, Bad Santa is surely the Grand Illusion of drunk-Santa movies. The film's rancor is nothing but sincere. So is its grudging admission that there's some actual generosity underneath all the merchandising--or, as in the punch line of that beloved Christmas story: There may be a pony underneath all the horse shit.


Bad Santa (R; 91 min.), directed by Terry Zwigoff, written by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, photographed by Jamie Anderson and starring Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac and Tony Cox, opening at selected theaters countywide.

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From the November 26-December 3, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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