Monday, December 08, 2014

Bad Santa (2003)

Very funny, very dark and very raunchy comedy about a deadbeat, drunken loser who makes his living by playing a department store Santa and pulling off big heists with his midget friend (who works with him in the guise of Santa's elf). It's hard to imagine anyone other than Billy Bob Thornton in the lead role, because he pulls it off so well, and manages to make the character's foul-mouthed tirades and reprehensible behavior incredibly funny. He transforms the cursing and overall vulgarity into an art form through his skillful performance -- similar in tone to the kind of humor W.C. Fields and Rodney Dangerfield did so well -- never breaking character or softening its edge, even in its more sympathetic moments.

It's a film that, by all rights, should offend virtually everyone, and yet has a surprising heart to it that makes it oddly endearing, even though there's scarcely a single character in the piece that isn't deeply damaged in one way or another. Tony Cox as Thornton's double-crossing partner in crime proves to be an excellent comic foil, displaying a great chemistry with Thornton even as they curse and insult each other mercilessly. Bernie Mac as the crooked store detective is an inspired bit of casting, and John Ritter is wonderfully effective in a brief but memorable turn as the harried, uptight store manager. Newcomer Brett Kelly -- as the hopelessly awkward but sensitive and good-hearted kid through whom Thornton finds a kind of redemption -- delivers an offbeat yet likable performance that requires him to serve as perhaps the only basically good character in the film.

Terry Zwigoff is a director whose work I find consistently interesting. Despite its subject matter, BAD SANTA is probably his most accessible film, which is to say it's probably aimed at the broadest audience, coming as it does between the really quirky, offbeat charm of GHOST WORLD (2001) and the sharp art world satire of ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (2006). Zwigoff has a knack for working with these kinds of oddball characters and bizarre situations that makes him a great choice for the material. It's doubtful that BAD SANTA will be joining MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET as yearly holiday viewing for families each Christmas, but it provides a nice antidote to the usual holiday fare that holds up well as a good comedy for adults.

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