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 That’s all been replaced by perpetually-recovering-from-the-night-before Santa, offering up pearls of wisdom that include: “Wish in one hand and shit in the other.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

No. 2: “Young Frankenstein” (1974)

“For what we are about to see next, we must enter quietly into the realm of genius.”  ~~Frederick Frankenstein*

Mel Brooks is a tricky, tricky director. People rarely notice this in his films (they are too busy trying to regain bladder control lost to uncontrollable laughter), but it’s true. He hits you hard with the pratfalls and lines like “Werewolf? There wolf,” and while you’re revelling in the exquisite craziness of it all, he sneaks in things like parody and, on occasion, when the planets and the stars all align, a smidgen of (dare I say it?) satire.

Then again, parsing for subtext in a Mel Brooks creation is madness in itself. He’d have my head. Or worse, he’d (eek) crown me the first female mayor of Rock Ridge for overthinking the likes of “Young Frankenstein,” a ripsnorter of a comedy that sends up Hollywood monster movies with dazzling wit and characters like Frau Blücher, whose very name inspires terror in the hearts of horses everywhere. Because, really, aren’t those things reason enough to enjoy “Young Frankenstein,” arguably Mel Brooks’ zaniest, funniest and most beloved creation?

The answer: Yes, yes, for the love of Igor’s dear ole’ dead dad yes. There are surface-level pleasures aplenty to delight the ears, eyes and the funny bone. Ponder the setup: Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, a neurosurgeon who’s spent years trying to live down his grandfather’s infamous experiments, discovers he’s inherited the old, discredited embarassment’s castle. Even worse, this inheritance comes with a collection of oddballs so nutty only a kook like Mel Brooks could dream them up: Igor (a brilliantly comic Marty Feldman), the grandson of the elder Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant who has a perpetually shifting hump; the housekeeper, Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), whose interest in the departed doctor may have been more than professional; and Inga (Teri Garr), a blonde bombshell/lab assistant who loves rolls in the hay (literally, not figuratively). Inherited, too, are the fiery resentments of the neighboring townsfolk, who appoint Herr Falkstein (Kenneth Mars) to snoop about the castle and discover whether or not Frederick possesses the same off-the-grid mad scientist instincts his grandfather did. When Frederick’s high-maintenance wife-to-be Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) turns up unexpectedly, afraid he’s two-timing her and then certain he is when she glimpses Inga’s, uh, knockers, things get … hairy.

It’s nearly impossible to pin down what’s so great about “Young Frankenstein” because everything is great. Sounds crazy, right? Maybe so, but the movie just flat-out works. As an ensemble cast film, “Young Frankenstein” is flawless. Everyone’s in rare, fine form here, from the cameos (it takes several looks to deduce the actor playing Blindman) up to Gene Wilder, whose balance of screaming hissy fits and professional arrogance are wonderfully entertaining. Comic timing all-around is a thing of beauty, particularly as used by the late Kahn (the train station “taffeta, darling” sequence is genuis). Special praise must go to the late Feldman for going all-noble as Igor, a sly mischief maker who delights more in mocking his new employer than catering to his whims. “It’s pronounced ‘Eye-gor,'” he smugly informs Frederick, picking at the sore that is the young doctor’s last name. Such wit that Feldman had; it lights up the whole screen.

“Young Frankenstein” works on other levels as well. It’s a terrific parody of Hollywood’s monster films, poking fun at all the cliches — the creepy drafty castle! the dramatic-yet-ominous score! the shadowy secret passageway! — and the stock characters — the evil scientist, the mysterious housekeeper, the mindless monster — and taking no prisoners in the process. Yet “Young Frankenstein” also is something of a love letter to these movies, filmed in black and white with great care and attention to detail. The characters are crazy — would you expect anything less from Brooks? — but somehow still empathetic and lovingly etched. The monster (Peter Boyle) proves no better or worse than the scientist. So, sure, we laugh at these characters, but we love them, too. They make “Young Frankenstein” not just a great, timeless comedy, but a great movie period.

*It’s pronounced “Fronkensteen.”

(A special thanks to my parents, who had the good sense to introduce me to the wild, wild world of Mel Brooks at an impressionable age. Excuse me, folks. I just had to whip that out.)