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Wednesday, November 26, 2003 - Page updated at 10:15 A.M.

Movie Review
'Bad Santa' way past naughty or nice

By Mary Brennan
Special to The Seattle Times

TRACY BENNETT
Bernie Mac, Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox in "Bad Santa."
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Santa is not jolly.

Santa is angry. Very angry. If he'd known the way things would turn out, he tells us, he "would have killed myself a long time ago." And Santa is also a terrible drunk. Not the picturesque Mayberry kind of drunk, but a foul-mouthed career alcoholic who blacks out cold in public and can't always control his bladder. To add to his other crimes against Christmas, Santa is also a skinny, bleary-eyed, child-loathing, womanizing safecracker.

This anti-Claus is Billy Bob Thornton, in an irresistibly deranged performance. The movie is "Bad Santa," a profane, wildly politically incorrect and sometimes shockingly funny holiday comedy from Miramax (which is, after all, a Disney company) that is bound to generate controversy.

Thornton plays a sodden sad sack whose only talent is cracking safes, abetted by his partner in crime, a midget (Tony Cox).

Movie review


Showtimes and trailer

***
"Bad Santa," with Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, John Ritter, Bernie Mac, Brett Kelly, Cloris Leachman, Lauren Graham. Directed by Terry Zwigoff, from a screenplay by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. 93 minutes. Rated R for pervasive language, strong sexual content and some violence. Several theaters.

The con goes like this: Cox finagles holiday jobs for the pair in a fancy department store. Thornton puts on a Santa suit and sits in a Santa chair having his picture taken with kids, while Cox poses as an elf. Behind the scenes, Cox cases the joint and works out a plan to crack the safe on Christmas Eve.

Every year they hit a new city. This year it's Phoenix, where luckless mall manager Bob Chipeska (the late John Ritter, in a winningly low-key performance) hires them. In one of the funniest scenes, Ritter and Bernie Mac, as store security chief, discuss Thornton and Cox, and whether the term "midget" is acceptable (it is, in fact, derogatory).

"Little people," scowls Mac, peeling an orange as he glares at the pinched, dyspeptic Ritter. "That's what they like."

Everything goes more or less according to plan — apart from Santa's blackouts, hangovers and unsavory trysts in the ladies' plus-size dressing room — until a wide-eyed, painfully innocent fat kid named Thurman (Brett Kelly) arrives on the scene. Thurman brings Santa home to the upscale house he shares with his grandmother (Cloris Leachman). His father is away, he explains, on an adventure.

"Does your Daddy have a safe?" Thornton asks Thurman, not believing his luck.

Even in this mordant comedy, which really is strictly for adults, Santa's heart, not just his liver, has to soften. And it does. But director Terry Zwigoff manages a little resonating edge of complexity among the unrepeatable one-liners and savage slapstick, even while he's pushing the plot toward its decidedly odd happy ending.

For those who prefer their comedy very, very black, "Bad Santa" should provide a welcome antidote to all that precious wholesome holiday cheer.


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