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My thought on today

Review: “Bad Santa” (2003)

Don't worry -- Mrs. Santa understands that !@#&@! happens when you party naked.

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 That’s all been replaced by perpetually-recovering-from-the-night-before Santa, offering up pearls of wisdom that include: “Wish in one hand and shit in the other.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.

Grade: A

Screw the eggnog: Cheerless movies for the Season of Cheer

badsanta

Billy Bob Thornton isn't your average Saint Nick in the delightfully twisted "Bad Santa."

I know that Christmas is the time of good tidings and cheer, of wassailing and sleigh rides, of snowman building and eggnog, tree trimming and family togetherness and overall spectacularly warm-hearted merrymaking.

But so help me if I have to hear “Feliz Navidad” one more time I am going to have a meltdown of cataclysmic — no, make that Britney Spears — proportions. I will shave my own head, procure a few random tattoos and then do a press junket where I convince everyone I’m old and boring and, like, a TOTALLY fit guardian for two children.

Yes, you caught me — when it comes to the Season of Cheer, I am something of a grinch, a harbinger of bah humbug apathy. Perhaps I was born without the Christmas spirit, or maybe I had one once but I stopped feeding it, so it wandered away in search of sustenance.

(Don’t worry; I’m not a complete lost cause. A quick viewing of “Elf” or the claymation Rudolph/Abominable Snowman special whips me into a minor Xmas frenzy.)

So this year I figured I would run with this grinch-like spirit in the hopes that a few of you out there share my dilemma. Thus, I offer up a list of anti-Christmas movies — you know, the kind that leave you feeling sick, horribly depressed or dumbfounded and numb. If you’re in the mood to scare off any holiday merriment, play one of these at top volume:

* The Todd Solondz trilogy: “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Happiness,” “Storytelling” — Nobody makes better soul-killing films than Solondz, and this is the Holy Trinity for his fans. “Dollhouse” offers a brutally honest and painful glimpse at adolescence; “Happiness” is an ensemble drama about everyday people trying (and failing miserably) to find joy; and “Storytelling” offers up two cringe-with-laughter vignettes, one involving something resembling a professor/student date rape and the other about a family who learns too late what happens when you mistreat the hired help. My advice? Don’t watch all three in rapid succession unless you have a hearty supply of uppers — or at least a few dozen SSRIs — within arm’s reach.

* “Bad Santa” — OK, OK, you caught me. I threw in a Christmas movie, but only because “Bad Santa” gets my lusty, wholehearted vote for its gleeful and unapologetic lack of anything resembling warmth or Christmas cheer. Billy Bob Thornton delivers a dementedly clever performance as Willie T. Soke, a grumbling, last-stage alcoholic safecracker who poses as Santa to get access to store safes and rob them. “Miracle on 34th Street”? Please. Give me a movie about a Santa who gives plastic reindeer a beatdown and spends his lunch breaks diddling women in the plus-size dressing room any day.

* “The Pledge” — Somehow this bone-chilling, taut little thriller starring Jack Nicholson as a detective hunting a serial killer and Robin Wright Penn as a harried single mom slipped under everyone’s radar in 2001. No matter — those who saw it (including, of course, yours truly) never forgot the ominous tone and the make-your-skin-crawl final act. This film serves up the kind of resolution that’s twice as unnerving as it is comforting. Bonus: Benicio del Toro turns in a cameo that will haunt your dreams. Believe it.

* “Apartment Zero” — Here’s yet another first-rate pitch-black number very few people saw (to be fair, I found out about it through a fellow film buff). Set in the volatile political climate of 1980s Buenos Aires, this one stars Colin Firth as a nervous, antisocial theater owner who befriends a charismatic sociopath (Hart Bochner, who should have become wildly famous) who may be a ruthless hitman. The humor is so bracingly black it draws more nervous chuckles than laughter, and the final scene will freeze your blood. Prepare to lose some sleep.

* “House of Sand and Fog” — This quiet film plays out, scene for scene, like a Greek tragedy, or perhaps a grim retelling (or retooling) of what we consider the American Dream. Jennifer Connelly and Sir Ben Kingsley are note perfect as a recovering alcoholic who loses her house to a red-tape snafu and the determined immigrant who purchases it, free and clear, in an auction. The intersection of these two lives initiates pure chaos, sending both characters steamrolling toward an end so bleak it will have you reeling for weeks (trust me). Be careful with this one.

* “Mystic River” — As a director, Clint Eastwood has created near-flawless films that peek into the dark hearts of mankind. Apart from “Unforgiven,” it doesn’t get much darker or more disturbing than this adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Boston crime thriller. The performances are astounding; in particular, watch Tim Robbins shrink himself inside and out to play Dave, a man whose demons are slowly and stealthily eating him alive. Sean Penn, too, is unforgettable as an ex-con hungry to avenge his teen-age daughter’s murder — and it’s that revenge that sets off a chain reaction of grim events that lead to soul-deadening conclusion.

* “Requiem for a Dream” — This adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s dismal novel takes the top spot in this list because, quite simply, I have never — and probably will never — see another film that presents such an unrelentingly bleak (but realistic) view of drug addiction. Observe the addicts in question: There’s Sara (Ellen Burstyn, who was ROBBED of the Oscar by Julia Roberts), an overweight retiree hooked on speedy diet pills who watches as her son, Harry (Jared Leto), hocks her possessions for smack money. His friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) are smackheads, too, and before long every player in this drama realizes the particularly cruel paradox of addiction: When you can stop, you don’t want to, and when you want to stop, you can’t. Here’s a film guaranteed to leave you awestruck and, at the same time, completely, utterly numb.

*** HONORABLE MENTIONS ***

Thanks to some prodding by a reader (I won’t name names; you know who you are), I realized there was at least one movie I left off this list. Maybe that’s because I forgot it, but I suspect it might be because the movie was so wholly disturbing I’d blocked it from recent memory.

* “Mysterious Skin,” “Manic” — Oh, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, how far ye have come since “Third Rock from the Sun.” This former alien has blossomed into a first-rate dramatic actor, and these two films attest to that undeniable fact. In the first, he capably portrays a troubled teen who’d prefer to bury memories of a childhood trauma with RSEs (Random Sexual Encounters); in the second, JGL is downright frightening as a high school student with an anger management problem that lands him in the local psych ward. Don’t expect mindless happy endings; here are two indies that leave you with that sinking feeling (or is it nausea?) in your gut.

* “O” — Shakespeare buffs, please prepare yourself by putting away your quill pens; I warn you that you will not like what you are about to read. This powerful movie (shelved because of its controversial nature) gets my vote as the most creative and disturbing recreation of a Shakespearean play. Based loosely on “Othello,” this drama — set in a modern-day private Southern high school — does the Bard proud by digging deep into the issues that made his play so timeless: jealousy, greed, need for acceptance, trust, deception. The body count alone is unsettling, but it’s each character’s personal dissintegration (particularly Odin as played by Mekhi Phifer) that makes your head spin.

* “Heavenly Creatures” — Forget “Lord of the Rings.” Don’t even mention “King Kong.” Peter Jackson’s spooky project (based on the true story of two New Zealand teens involved in a brutal matricide) remains, in my mind, his definitive work. Thanks to Jackson’s free-wheeling directoral style (he employs creeptastic fantasy scenes) and outstanding acting by then-newcomer Kate Winslet and “Two and a Half Men’s” Melanie Linskey, this is one movie that digs its way into your subconscious and calls it home. If you don’t walk away profoundly disturbed, it’s too late to save you from the psychotic break that looms in your future.