Bad Santa

on November 26, 2003 by Ray Greene
Give the credit to modern saturation booking policies. For years, if not decades, true Christmas features were all but nonexistent in the world of theatrical film. As the insatiable moviegoing habits of audiences from the '30s, '40s and '50s made way for the more selective filmgoing of the '60s and '70s while movies themselves became more and more expensive to make, producers decided they simply couldn't make their money back in the interval between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And a Christmas movie is as rancid as a three-week-old slab of leftover turkey come January 2nd--movies so seasonal just don't travel well after everyone's been filled to overflowing with holiday cheer.

But all that has changed in an era when it's possible to put even a small movie out on 2,000 screens. Nowadays, release patterns are so frontloaded that the third panel in the "Matrix" triptych grosses over $100 million domestic in a week, and is down to a paltry $6.6 million by its third weekend.

The result has been a new bonanza in holiday-themed productions, which are now capable of sizable grosses in four to six short weeks. A Christmas genre typified in the past by "Miracle of 34th Street" and "It's a Wonderful Life" has seen its ranks swollen in relatively recent times to include not one but two Tim Allen "The Santa Clause" movies; Governor Schwarzenegger's "Jingle All the Way"; the runaway smash "Elf"; and even a heretofore unheard-of subgenre, the Chanukah flick ("8 Crazy Nights"; the upcoming "Hebrew Hammer").

So prolific has the "Season's Greetings" genre become that there's even an interesting submarket in Christmas movies for the disaffected, as epitomized by the underrated "The Ref"; the overblown featurization of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"; and director Terry Zwigoff's vulgar, intermittently funny new cinematic excretion "Bad Santa." Those old enough to remember Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone" may recall this premise from an episode that starred the late great Art Carney: A bitter, alcoholic department store Santa finds unexpected holiday redemption one event-filled Christmas Eve. In "Bad Santa," the Claus in question is Billy Bob Thornton, a foul-mouthed, child-hating safecracker who partners will an elf-garbed dwarf (Tony Cox, also in "Hebrew Hammer") to rob a series of employers of their holiday receipts. The late John Ritter (a close friend of Thornton's) is on hand in the only non-vulgarian comedy performance, and Bernie Mac plays it straight as Thornton and Cox's nemesis, a store detective who catches on to their scam and thereafter serves as a kind of felonious Inspector Javert to their dysfunctional collective Jean Valjean.

Vomit jokes, snot jokes, groin jokes and lots of scenes of a drunken Thornton swearing at children ensue. The funniest recurring bit is also among the most crude: when Thornton finds love, it's with a woman (played by Gilmore Girl Lauren Graham) with a Freudian Santa fetish. The scenes of their lovemaking, with her repeating the words "F--- me Santa" over and over, will make you laugh, but you'll hate yourself in the morning.

The puzzling thing about "Bad Santa" isn't why Dimension would make such a film (their "Scary Movie" franchise has proven thrice that mucus and cursing are to today's teenage movie audiences what flatulence jokes were to the boomers who went to see "Blazing Saddles" when it was new--in other words, money in the bank). But what on Earth is Terry Zwigoff doing making his commercial bones on a movie with such ridiculously low aspirations? Surely the filmmaker behind the brilliant documentary "Crumb" and the haunting narrative "Ghost World" can do better than such an unsubtle and even cynical exercise. There's little in "Bad Santa" that comes near the brilliance of a truly inspired piece of offensive moviemaking like the "South Park" feature, and as the mechanics of Thornton's officially approved Hollywood character arc kick in, and he gradually exploits but then befriends the fat kid all the other kids pick on, it's possible to feel conned and cheated. That sinking feeling sets in; despite its pretense of a deliriously delinquent point of view and an inherently satiric set-up, "Bad Santa" ends up just another ersatz tale of seasonal redemption--"Elf" with a less surefooted comedic performance at its center, and a far more limited and monosyllabic vocabulary to draw upon. Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Lauren Graham and Bernie Mac. Directed by Terry Zwigoff. Written by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Produced by John Cameron, Sarah Aubrey and Bob Weinstein. A Miramax release. Comedy. Rated R for pervasive language, strong sexual content and some violence. Running time: 95 min

Tags: Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Lauren Graham, Bernie Mac, Directed by Terry Zwigoff, Written by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, Produced by John Cameron, Sarah Aubrey, Bob Weinstein, Miramax, Comedy

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