If “Elf” proved too nice for the naughty set, “Bad Santa” should handily fit the bill. Quite likely the most subversive Santa movie ever made, this twisted take on conventional holiday fare stars Billy Bob Thornton as a defiantly slovenly man in the red suit — a perpetually soused department store Kris Kringle who likes kids only slightly better than he cares for his own miserable life.
While that less-than-cheery tone shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise given that it was directed by Terry Zwigoff (“Ghost World,” “Crumb”) and based on a one-line concept by the Coen brothers, not everybody’s going to be prepared for the kind of unmistakably R-rated brand of take-no-prisoners comedy that would have made Scrooge blush.
Fortunately, it also happens to be extremely funny — at times sidesplittingly so — thanks to Zwigoff’s way with raw irreverence and Thornton’s perfectly pitched, ready-for-anything performance.
But even with Zwigoff’s following, Dimension’s marketing department has a tough job to do. “Bad Santa” is the kind of film that’s going to rely heavily on positive word-of-mouth to build its audience, not to mention the fact that, aside from maybe the successful “Bad Boys” and “Bad News Bears” movies, having the word “bad” in your title isn’t usually a good idea.
Displaying a deviously mean-spirited streak that they didn’t exactly hint at in “Cats & Dogs” and “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” the screenwriting team of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra have cooked up a clever little bit of business here.
Each holiday season, safecracker Willie T. Stokes (Thornton) partially emerges from a hazy, booze-induced hibernation to team up with 3-foot-tall mastermind Marcus (Tony Cox) and, under the benevolent cover of Santa and Elf, clean out the particular department store in which they happen to be employed.
But this year, Marcus has more to contend with than the distinct possibility of Willie either being passed out cold behind the fake snow or giving female customers an early present in the fitting rooms.
First of all, there’s the nosy highly methodical store manager (John Ritter in his last role) who reports his suspicious findings to his intrepid mall detective (Bernie Mac).
Meanwhile, Willie becomes distracted by the perky Sue (Lauren Graham), who has a major Santa fixation (she makes him do it while keeping his hat on), and, unwittingly, by a pudgy, snot-nosed 8-year-old (played by natural-born scene-stealer Brett Kelly), who invites the unpleasant Santa to live with him and his grandmother (Cloris Leachman) in their big, empty house.
It is to Zwigoff’s credit that, despite all the shocking bits, he manages to pull off key moments of syrup-free pathos where they count, but the casting is what makes “Bad Santa” sing.
Summoning up the late, great curmudgeonly Wallace Beery (or at least Beery unencumbered by the Hays Code), Thornton’s Willie T. Stokes is a comic blast, especially when he lets loose with the ennui-dripping sarcasm.
Even more potent are his interactions with Cox as his abusive partner in crime and, especially, newcomer Kelly, who willingly endures all of Thornton’s profane diatribes without the slightest blink of an eye.
Production values reflect the desired dispirited tone, from Sharon Seymour’s humbly tacky production design and costume designer Wendy Chuck’s sad-looking, understuffed Santa suit to David Kitay’s quirky, not-exactly-festive score.