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BAD SANTA

2003, dir. Terry Zwigoff
93 min. Rated R.
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony cox, Lauren Graham, Bernie Mac.

Review by Justin Patterson

Warning! If you are a smoker and wish to see this film, you may want to wait until it hits DVD or see it at your local cinema and drafthouse. If not, you will be seriously jonesing for a cigarette within the first 20 minutes. Billy Bob doesn't let up, and your cravings will just get worse as time goes by.

Annnnyway, I wanted to let you know about BAD SANTA. There is a special place in my heart for films that destroy all that is traditionally held sacred. For every HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT, there is a far superior HEATHERS. For every Griffith/Roberts/Ryan film, there is a CECIL B. DEMENTED. If you preferred THE REF to A MIRACLE ON 34TH ST, this is the film for you.

By the way, if you are related to me or if I know you from church or something, please stop reading now. I don't want to have to face one of those awkward moments the next time I see you.

Does this film explore new realms of cinematic boundaries? No. Does it reveal new insights into the psyche of the dysfunctional, allowing the true meaning of Christmas to shine through despite a lifetime of cynicism? No. Well, maybe a little. This is a film that shoots holes in every closely-held idea of what holiday films are all about. This film is less about Cousin Eddie and more about what happens to the neighbors. This film is to Christmas what South Park was to nationalism, Jim Crow laws, professional figure skating and the American musical.

Let's start with the previews. HELLBOY looks interesting, like a friend from college saw LXG and decided to make a film. I liked the comic, though, and will reserve jedgement. MY BABY'S DADDY looks like a few real talents had either contractual obligations to a studio or some serious bills to pay. MINDHUNTERS looks like someone saw EYE SEE YOU, liked the idea and expanded on it.

Opening scene: Billy Bob Thornton is a mall Santa, and one that we always feared was out there. His narration sets the tone of the film, letting us know that this is indeed a bad Santa. We watch him drink himself into oblivion in a bar, then hurl in a back alley while the film's title is finally displayed. Be warned.

Santa and his mall elf (played masterfully by Tony Cox) are working a mall. We get the distinct feeling that Santa hates kids, and the elf is just putting in time until he can land that condo in Boca Raton. Then, we see the mall close just prior to Christmas. If you've ever laughed at a midget joke, you'll love the scene that ensues. Tony (as Marcus the elf) races through the mall in a snowman outfit and manages to defeat the alarm. It's been 30 seconds, yet Santa has already killed eight beers while waiting to be let back in. You see, Santa is a safecracker and Marcus the elf has a list of stuff that his wife wants for Christmas. The mall safe is ripped off, as well as many of the sale racks.

Reflecting on their crime, Santa and Marcus are drinking to their success. There is little jubilation, as they have done this many times before. Still, this is the point at which we begin to appreciate the beauty of the film's script. Santa wants to order another round of shots, and the elf declines. Santa asks why the elf can't handle his liquor, to which Marcus replies, "I weigh 92 pounds, you dick!" From this point forward, we are privileged to enjoy some of the most irreverent screenwriting ever presented.

Santa wants to take the money from this "last" score and retire. You know, open a bar and retire. We flash forward most of a year and realize just how bad his little drinking problem is. My friend Holli would appreciate the fast forward, as the scene in which Santa is awakened to "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" is truly something with which she could relate. He has no savings. He has no bar. It's time to go back to work as Santa. The phone rings and Marcus is on the line. "It's that time of year again. Pack your shit. Phoenix."

As we move the scene to Phoenix, I would like to point out that this is the (supposed) last film of John Ritter. As mall manager Bob Chipeska, he channels Stuart Smalley rather well. We'll reserve judgement on that "last" movie remark until we can determine whether or not he'll pull a Tupac and keep going for ten years.

Santa is back at work at another mall, and we see him at his finest. The true spirit of the season is reflected as Santa screams at children, "I said next, goddamn it! This is not the DMV!"

Santa manages to find a bar at which unemployed love interests hang out. In this case, he is waited on by Lorelai Gilmore, who has a thing for Santas. That thing seems to consist mostly of nymphomania and a habit of screaming, "Fuck me, Santa!" during sex. Yes, this will skew your television watching habits.

At this point, we see the plot finally unfold. It has taken a while, but you truly won't mind. Fat, snotty loser Brett Kelly (aka The Kid) decides that Billy Bob is the Real Santa and latches onto him like a lamprey. This kid has no family except for an ancient grandmother and a father in jail. He's picked on, ridiculed and his skidmarked underwear is routinely pulled up past his nipples. After saving Santa from a very strange stalker (Ajay Naidu in a truly bizarre cameo), the two are connected.

Basically, the rest of the film is about how this little (roughly speaking) boy finds a way into the world-weary Santa's heart and helps him to discover the true meaning of Christmas.

How nice, you think. What a wonderful holiday message, you think. Wrong. This Santa loves all that helps him to debase himself and revels in the Three Bs of Christmas. We are treated to the most creative and plentiful use of four-letter words in recent memory. We see the worst guilt trip imaginable that can be inflicted in a single Christmas present. We understand why women take so long to try on clothes, and why they look so unsure of themselves when they emerge from the fitting rooms. We see defeated suicides, the pleasure that can be derived from beating up children and just how funny a punch to the crotch can really be. We see how wrong hanging the stockings can be and explore new joys in trimming the tree.

The plot had some unexpected and welcome surprises. The ending, unlike the rest of the film, decides to take a little detour. The Kid is surprisingly well developed and establishes a love-hate relationship with both Santa and the entire audience. Bells do not ring and nobody gets his wings. There is a scene towards the end that is preversely reminiscent of CON AIR's "Put the bunny back in the box."

Billy Bob was born for this role. As Marcus the elf, Tony Cox is a foul-mouthed natural. Bernie Mac plays the head of mall security and does a predictably excellent job. The casting was great, the plot and writing were fun and the cinematography (!) really shone through. I mention the cinematography because this movie contains the finest film depiction of someone passing out that I've ever seen.

If you're sick at heart, go see it. If you have a special place in your heart for hating Christmas, go see it. If you have annoying children, go see it. Just don't bring the kids.

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