- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

“Bad Santa,” worse movie. Billy Bob Thornton’s dyspeptic department store Santa could have been a bracing corrective to “Elf” and other yuletide confections.

Instead, it’s the sorriest lump of coal since Michael Keaton’s disastrous 1998 film “Jack Frost.”

Mr. Thornton makes for one gaunt St. Nick, but casting him as a boozy Santa for hire makes sense. He’s fashioned a career out of playing losers and outcasts, and this Santa is two for two. Sadly, the actor and occasional honky-tonk crooner turns in the worst performance of an otherwise respectable career.

Joel and Ethan Coen penned the story and serve as executive producers. Director Terry Zwigoff created the wonderful “Ghost World” three years ago and is best known for his 1994 documentary “Crumb.”

How could so much talent yield such a one-note farce?

“Bad Santa” opens with Mr. Thornton slumped on a bar stool, drowning his sorrows. By day his department store Kris Kringle teams with an irascible black midget (Tony Cox) who plays his whimsical elf. In between shifts, he engages in, um, unnatural sex with the nearest plus-size woman and cases the store for security weak spots to exploit later on.

And Lord help the little boys and girls who sit on Santa’s lap: They get profanity-laced tongue lashings.

Each season, Santa picks a new city and department store to haunt. He latches onto an Arizona shop where two new people come into and change his life. He romances a beautiful barkeep (“Gilmore Girls’” Lauren Graham) and grudgingly acquiesces in — initially for opportunistic reasons — the friendship of a fat, friendless boy (Brett Kelly) who idolizes him.

If the Grinch can change his evil ways, so, too, can our Santa.

On paper, Mr. Zwigoff seemed an apt choice to orchestrate such a pitch black comedy. Too bad he fumbles nearly every comical moment, displaying a leaden touch where the most delicate of approaches is needed. He frames the humor so poorly, it’s as if he learned his comic chops from watching a dozen failed sitcoms.

Mr. Thornton’s constant rages never coalesce into a character, let alone a human being, so we watch, stone faced, as a tiny bud of goodness blooms within him. And his seduction of a gorgeous bartender defies credulity.

The Coen brothers’ touch is nowhere to be seen in “Bad Santa,” nor is any semblance of storytelling momentum. Characters come and go, like the late John Ritter as a mealy-mouthed store manager afraid to fire his soused Santa lest he be picketed by angry midgets, or “little guys,” as the hyper-sensitive manager puts it, of color.

Equally mistreated is Bernie Mac as a two-faced security chief. When will Hollywood give the comedian a role that fully capitalizes on his intense stare and corrosive wit?

“Bad Santa” sinks because none of its characters are remotely human or believable, nor are any of their interactions. We’re bludgeoned by one vulgarity after another with only some classic Christmas songs, played for ironic effect, for relief.

The Drudge Report claims some bigwigs at Disney are outraged their company (via subsidiary Miramax Films) created a film vilifying a beloved character such as Santa.

The far worse crime is wasting a chance to tweak seasonal sappiness.

If “Bad Santa” is unsentimental satire, I’ll take schmaltz.

1/2*

WHAT: “Bad Santa”

RATING: R (Offensive language, cruelty toward children, kinky humor and sexual situations)

CREDITS: Directed by Terry Zwigoff. Written by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra. Executive produced by Joel and Ethan Coen.

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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