- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Since when did Santa Claus become sacrosanct? Just yesterday the fat jolly man in a padded red suit and white whiskers was the totem of secular Christmas, an Easter Bunny for our wintertime gorging at the trough of commercialism. He’s plastered all over public spaces, while nativity scenes are constitutionally off-limits. He’s the mythical bearer of gifts: the crass, worldly things that the true meaning of Christmas is supposed to transcend.

Yet, according to the Drudge Report, Disney is ticked off anew at subsidiary Miramax Studios for creating a “postmodern” Santa Claus. In “Bad Santa,” out today in area theaters, Billy Bob Thornton plays a hard-drinking, mean-streaking, sex-seeking Saint Nick of Nihilism.

As far back as “A Miracle on 34th Street,” drunk Santas have been on the margins of Christmas movies. As recently as Will Farrell’s sleeper hit “Elf,” Howard Stern sidekick Artie Lang plays a wayward Santa who smells like “beef and cheese.” Not irrelevantly, by the way, the Thornton “Santa” is a homologue of the Gimbel’s Santa in “Elf,” not its genuine, Pole-dwelling Santa.

Still, never before has a “bad” Santa been the star of a Christmas movie, and coming on the heels of Quentin Tarantino’s bloody “Kill Bill Vol. I,” “Santa” has reportedly redoubled Disney’s heartburn. “Nothing appears sacred anymore; this is just not in the spirit of Walt Disney,” says a source the Drudge Web site describes as “close to Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner.”

Mr. Thornton dismisses the rumors: “That’s just people looking for something to write about, trying to stir up controversy,” he says in a phone interview with The Washington Times. “I can’t speak for Disney, but Miramax is delighted with the movie,” he adds.

“Bad Santa” is directed by Terry Zwigoff, who won cult status with the depressive comedy “Ghost World” in 2000. The humor was black, the characters misanthropic. Now Mr. Zwigoff projects that same world sickness onto the rotund repository of sentimentality, Santa himself, turning the Christmas-movie formula of eggnoggy cheer and redemption on its head.

“I think he’s fascinated with the underbelly of life, the people on the fringe,” Mr. Thornton says of the director. “He’s an edgy guy.”

Mr. Zwigoff’s take on Saint Nick is decidedly not a family-friendly affair. It’s defiantly anti-PC, poking fun at midgets and, while it’s at it, deriding the oversensitivity of those who tsk-tsk the poking of fun at midgets.

Its sexual humor is vile, even turning Santa into an object of fetishistic attraction.

Worst of all, for Disney, at least, the Kris Kringle in “Bad Santa” is the Grinch exactly where the Grinch should never be: on Santa’s throne of goodwill and bonhomie, with children on his lap and gift requests in his ears.

Merry Christmas, America.

Mr. Thornton’s Santa — perpetually drunk and lascivious — hates his job, hates life even more and takes out his woes on his unsuspecting and uncomprehending supplicants, swearing like a stevedore on Friday night. “It was right down my alley,” Mr. Thornton says of the comedic role. “I read the script and just laughed on every page.”

Mr. Thornton confesses he got nervous after signing onto the movie; he’d actually have to deliver those profanity-laced lines in front of children and their parents. The young extras and their minders took it in surprisingly sophisticated stride: “It was so funny. They were unfazed by it, and the parents were real patient,” he says.

His young co-star, Brett Kelly, who plays a paunchy 8-year-old latchkey kid mercilessly bullied by a skateboarding gang, was similarly unperturbed by the adult humor. Mr. Thornton: “I’d say, ‘Brett, listen, you do realize I’m about to say some really nasty things,’ and he’d say, “Yeah, I know. It’s in the script.’” (Like, duh, Mr. Thornton.)

According to production notes, a chief inspiration for “Bad Santa” was the late Walter Matthau’s martini-slugging Coach Buttermaker from “The Bad News Bears,” a reminder that scandalizing children and scandal-immune children wise beyond their years is an old Hollywood joke.

Moreover, Mr. Thornton insists his anti-Santa character isn’t all bad. “He doesn’t hate children,” he says. “He just can’t be bothered with them.”

The Santa gig is merely a means to an end: namely, a cover for a safecracking caper in which every Christmas Eve he and an elfish accomplice rob a different department store of all its plentiful holiday cash. While biding time for the year-end score, Mr. Thornton’s Santa freeloads at the home of the 8-year-old, called simply “The Kid” in the credits. Slowly, reluctantly, the cynical Santa develops a father-figure affection for the Kid. He softens but not by much.

Mr. Thornton explains, “Even though the end is a sentimental moment, we don’t change. We stay in the same tone. The movie has heart but not in a syrupy way.”

Which suited him just fine. As he saw it, once committed to the Bad Santa concept, “you gotta go all the way with it.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Just because “Bad Santa” is unsentimental doesn’t mean it’s always clever. The fixation of Lauren Graham’s half-Jewish barmaid on the forbidden goy with the toys, for example, is supposed to be dangerously, cathartically funny. But it’s not. Instead, it’s the kind of self-congratulatory lewd joke without a payoff reminiscent of an old Buddy Hackett routine or a Playboy cartoon.

Mr. Thornton admits “Bad Santa” doesn’t have a prayer of competing with family movies such as Mike Myers’ “The Cat in the Hat.” He predicts it will find a home in America’s dorm rooms, where jaded humor is the coin of the realm.

“I think this is gonna become one of the greatest college movies of all time,” he says.

It may even inspire collegians to erect that other secular holiday totem — something seldom spied in frats or dorm rooms: a Christmas tree.

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