[Screen It]

(2003) (Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox) (R)

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Comedy: A disgruntled, alcoholic man works as a department store Santa so that he and his diminutive associate can rob their places of work, but has his life changed when he encounters a sweet but oblivious and needy boy.
Willie (BILLY BOB THORNTON) is an angry and disgruntled alcoholic who reappears every Christmas season in a different city where he works - as a department store Santa - with his partner in crime, the diminutive Marcus (TONY COX) who acts as his elf. The two make an odd holiday pair, not only due to their unorthodox ways, drunkenness and profanity, but also because their day jobs are just covers for their nighttime business of robbing the stores where they work.

Their latest stop is Phoenix where department store manager Bob Chipeska (JOHN RITTER) is so concerned about the duo that he asks store detective Gin (BERNIE MAC) to keep an eye on them. Also watching them is Sue (LAUREN GRAHAM), a local bartender with a Santa fetish, and young Thurman Merman (BRETT KELLY), a picked-on and na´ve 8-year-old who lives with his grandmother (CLORIS LEACHMAN).

As Willie and Marcus prep for their next nighttime raid, Willie's errant, crude and rude behavior threatens to have the duo fired. Yet, as Sue becomes Willie's girlfriend of sorts and Thurman's sweet-natured but needy demeanor slowly but surely casts a spell on him, the bad Santa eventually begins to open his heart.

OUR TAKE: 2 out of 10
Although a recent newspaper article dispelled the notion through historical evidence, it does seem that the "Christmas Season" (that I believe officially began after July 4th this time) arrives earlier and earlier year after year. Thus, I can understand why some people eventually hit their limit with the holiday spirit and offerings.

The latter obviously includes Christmas movies, be they endlessly repeated on TV or new ones in the theaters designed to spread holiday cheer and lift some money from your wallet. Perhaps sensing that market of non-festive viewers and those who simply don't celebrate Christmas, Hollywood seems to be offering counter programming.

Last year, we had a disgruntled Jewish man in "Adam Sandler's Eight Crazy Nights." This year, writers Glenn Ficarra & John Requa ("Cats and Dogs") and director writer/director Terry Zwigoff ("Ghost World," "Crumb") have taken that concept to the extreme in "Bad Santa."

If there ever were a poster child for truth in advertising, this would be it. For not only is it a film about such a titular subject, but it's also a truly bad offering. In it, Billy Bob Thornton ("Love Actually," "Intolerable Cruelty") plays a grumpy, profane, politically incorrect and decidedly less than cheery department store Santa with a penchant for booze, cigarettes, a sexual act politely known as sodomy and robbing the stores where he works. Have a holly, jolly Christmas indeed.

While I appreciate the notion of a Christmas-themed black comedy - especially since I don't automatically view the usual offerings as sacred material - this effort just doesn't work. Like a "Saturday Night Live" skit stretched to the point of being wrapping paper thin, this is a one-joke premise repeated ad nauseam.

In short, if the notion of Thornton smoking, drinking to the point of drunkenness and vomiting, engaging in anal sex and cursing enough to make a sailor blush (often in the presence of or directly aimed at a young boy), all while dressed as a disheveled department store Santa who hates kids and relieves himself in his suit while working sounds funny to you, you might need professional help.

Okay, maybe that's a little harsh. Yet, the offering simply isn't funny and keeps repeating its material and mistakes from start to finish. Most of the problem obviously lies in the lame plot that stems from what possibly could have been an okay premise.

Another big flaw lies squarely on the construction and embodiment of the protagonist. While Thornton is probably about as perfectly cast for the part as one could imagine, he quickly becomes tiresome in the role, as he simply isn't given enough non-repetitive material with which to work. While the likes of W.C. Fields and especially Walter Matthau succeeded at making coarse, grumpy and curmudgeonly characters lovable and funny, Thornton doesn't manage to tap into that quality.

Nor does Tony Cox ("Me, Myself & Irene," "Friday") who plays a similarly profane little person who - natch - plays the accompanying elf. Bernie Mac ("Charlie's Angles: Full Throttle," "Ocean's Eleven") and the late John Ritter ("Tadpole," TV's "Three's Company") are wasted as a department store detective and his boss respectively, while Lauren Graham ("Sweet November," "One True Thing") plays a bartender with a Santa fetish that gives new meaning to Ho-ho-ho. Brett Kelly ("Cheaters," "Out Cold") appears as the lone plot catalyst - an insanely na´ve kid -- whose presence is simply to spur a change in the main character.

That's where the film commits its biggest sin, namely not sticking to its guns. Just like the Christmas films it seems to be skewering, it turns soft at the end. Sure, there's the nonstandard hail of bullets that concludes matters, but the protagonist finally gets the holiday spirit and tries to make Kelly's young boy character happy.

I don't know if that was studio pressure to end on a high and happy note (and thus deflect some criticism of the material). Whatever the case, it scuttles and undermines everything that came before it, however misguided, boring and bad it might have been.

If you despise Santa and/or the cheery end of the year holiday season, or are simply looking for a black comedy, you might be satisfied - to some degree -- with this offering. On the other hand, if you're looking for a clever, imaginative or - more importantly - funny film that doesn't simply retread its one-note premise before selling out at the end, you'll probably agree that this is one bad "Bad Santa." It rates as just a 2 out of 10.

Reviewed November 13, 2003 / Posted November 26, 2003

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