Willie T. Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) has a very reasonable explanation for why his Santa beard’s an obvious and cheap fake: “It was real, but I got sick and all the hair fell out.” When that answer doesn’t satisfy Thurman (Bret Kelly), the friendless wimp who’s latched onto him like a thirsty tick, Santa elaborates: “I loved a woman who wasn’t clean.” Apparently Mrs. Santa’s sister, though a tomcat in the sack, has a few … faults.
Shocking, isn’t it, to hear such frank, fresh talk in a holiday film? That all depends on your definition of “Christmas movie.” Terry Zwigoff’s warped “Bad Santa” is a Christmas movie only in the sense that it takes place in December. And there’s a guy wearing a Santa suit. And an elf and some reindeer. But all that noise about joy, peace, happiness, sugar plums and fruitcakes? That’s all been replaced by perpetually-recovering-from-the-night-before Santa, offering up pearls of wisdom that include: “Wish in one hand and shit in the other. See which one fills up first.” Sage advice indeed. Three sheets to the wind (a given) or stone sober (a rarity), Willie T. Soke is nothing if not philosophical.
“Bad Santa” brims to the top with such observations, shaped to twisted perfection by writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and delivered just as expertly by Billy Bob Thornton and the ace team of comedic actors who play off him. Talk about a match made in heaven — if there exists another actor better suited to play the boozy Willie than Thornton, well, I can’t name him. Thornton, with his craggy face, downturned mouth and vacant but vaguely menacing stare, nails the mixture of desperation and disgust at the core of Willie. Part of that desperation stems from his job: An expert safe cracker, Soke has created a highly profitable scam with fellow con man Marcus (Tony Cox, a potty-mouthed delight). Soke and Marcus, posing as a Santa-and-elf duo, work a different department store every Christmas. In less than a month they case the store, find the safe and rob the place blind on Christmas Eve.
Everything works fine until their latest scam in Arizona, where Willie’s constant drinking — as well as his tendency to diddle women in the plus-size dressing room and show up to work falling-down drunk — raises the eyebrows of the store’s fussy manager Bob (John Ritter, bringing a nice comic flair to his last big-screen role). Store security chief Gin (Bernie Mac) hears of Marcus and Willie’s plan and demands a hefty cut. Then there’s the matter of Thurman Merman (Kelly), a lonely weirdo who plops into Willie’s lap and then proceeds to stalk him. Ever the opportunist, Willie sees a chance to rob the house the kid shares with his grandma (Cloris Leachman). “Is she spry?” he asks, pulling on a face mask. She’s anything but. Before long, though, the house becomes a crash pad for Willie, somewhere to drink himself into oblivion and enjoy nightly hot tub sex with Sue (Lauren Graham), a bartender for whom a Santa hat is akin to Spanish fly.
The further we follow Willie down into his vodka bottle, the more clear it becomes that Zwigoff has no intention — ha! none! — of softening all this misery’n with a cocoa-and-candy canes last act. Zwigoff isn’t really a happy ending kind of director (see: “Art School Confidential,” “Ghost World”), so he never lightens the mood of sheer, abject hopelessness. In a way, that’s almost admirable, his stubborn refusal to change course. He means to make a bitter, bad-tasting movie about a mean drunk and he does it. The good news is that Zwigoff also makes this movie singularly entertaining. The razor-edged dialogue proves as uproarious as it is profane (Marcus to Willie as Santa: “You probably shouldn’t be digging in your ass”), while the actors — particularly Kelly, who’s all google-eyed creepiness, and Thornton, never better — turn in spot-on performances. These are people for whom “goodwill” is a dirty word. Considering all the holiday mush being peddled this time of year, that’s cheerfully refreshing.