2003-12-19 / Columnists

MovieScope By Robert Snyder

MovieScope By Robert Snyder

‘Bad Santa’ – A Mean-Spirited Mr. Claus

Three decades ago in a skit on "Saturday Night Live," comedian John Belushi played a drunken, kid-hating, department-store Santa Claus. Now, the Coen Brothers as executive producers have teamed up with director Terry Zwigoff ("Crumb," "Ghost World") to make a feature film expanding the same idea. It’s called, "Bad Santa," and will jive well with anyone bummed out by the holiday crunch.

While the movie was originally slated to star SNL alumnus Bill Murray, the awful St. Nick honor went to Billy Bob Thornton, who gleefully wallows in every scenery-chewing minute. Murray may have been funnier in a conventional slapstick sense, but Thornton brings a depth to Willy Stokes’ despair that makes the character’s alcoholism truly tragic and, therefore, not everyone’s cup of holiday cheer.

Be warned. "Bad Santa" is R-rated and not for kids. But adults amused by the dark side are bound to see this unusual holiday offering as a hoot.

Screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa start with Willy telling his miserable life story while sitting at a bar in his Santa suit. We soon realize he’s a seasonal worker who, with his dwarf partner Marcus (Tony Cox) as an elf, plays the Santa role at a different department store each year before the duo fleece the safe on Christmas Eve.

Then, it’s off to Florida, where Willy slides through the next three seasons in a drunken stupor. The only time he is slightly sober is when Marcus arouses him to dig out his Santa suit for a Christmas safecracking.

On his latest job, we encounter nervous, though timid store manager Bob Chipeska (John Ritter) and suspicious, calculating security chief Gin (Bernie Mac). Bombed and barely going through the motions, Willy insults kids and, at one point, relieves his bladder as he sits on the Santa throne. However, one plump third-grade boy, who is simply called The Kid (Brett Kelly), finally gets to Willy in his persistent belief that the safecracker is the actual Santa.

Capitalizing on the Kid’s delusion, Willy moves into the boy’s house and commandeers the family car (Dad’s is away "at work" for a year and a half. In fact, he’s a corrupt accountant in jail for fraud.) Only Grandmother (Cloris Leachman) is there…at least physically. Senility has taken hold, leaving her permanently glued to the television. Willy picks up a Santa-obsessed girlfriend, Sue (Lauren Graham), whom he brings to the house for sex and introduces as Mrs. Claus’s sister.

The story twists and turns with relentlessly raunchy outrageousness until the violent climax, where the human ity in Willy emerges as he risks his life stealing a Christmas present for the Kid.

"Bad Santa" is a merging of "Raising Arizona" Coen comic craziness and Zwigoff’s R. Crumb underground commix dementia. What’s amazing is that the movie appears to be finding an audience in the mainstream (it was number six on the box office list, earning $7 million in its second week).

Apparently, some people need to get laughs at the expense of Old St. Nick. Even the downside of Christmas can be an up.

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