So Bad It's Good

You'd better watch out. This is not the new holiday movie for all ages.

You'd better watch out. This is not the new holiday movie for all ages. This is nothing like the goofy A Christmas Story or the gooey It's a Wonderful Life. This is not a family film.

It's a depraved, twisted, nasty (please check your thesaurus for more adjectives) story of two guys who manage to get department store jobs as a skinny bedraggled Santa (Billy Bob Thornton) and his black elf (Tony Cox) each winter in a different part of the country. They fake their way through it for a few weeks while casing the joint, then break into the seasonally bulging store safe and split town.

If that isn't enough to put a damper on the old Christmas spirit, try this: Santa is a chain-smoking drunkard who has an ever-growing dislike for kids. Thornton presents him as a sour man with a constant hangover, and he swears more than Al Pacino did in Scarface. That's probably the main reason the film earned its R rating. Then again, part of it could be due to the cute and perky bartender (Lauren Graham, from Gilmore Girls) who picks up our not-so-jolly man in a red suit, gets him where she wants him, and proceeds to gasp out a mantra-like (bleep) me Santa, (bleep) me Santa.

There are midget jokes and fat people jokes, there's a suicide attempt, a murder, repeated thefts, a police shootout. This is truly one of the rudest films ever made.

Yet -- and here's where I'm gasping a bit, too -- it's hilarious. It's a movie that, depending on your mood when you see it and on your general attitude toward things, could make you sweat from laughing too hard. But it could also make you cringe. The humor here is at a very deep level of blackness. The whole thing is so outrageous, some thought should be given to making another Special Jury Prize, similar to the one presented to David Cronenberg for "audaciousness" at the Cannes Film Festival for Crash, and sending it over to Terry Zwigoff who, before this, directed Crumb and Ghost World.

Willie (Thornton) and Marcus (Cox) are the con men who get together each year around Thanksgiving, do their dirty deeds, then part ways, not even speaking until next Thanksgiving, when it's time to find a new target. Marcus is definitely the brains of the operation, since Willie regularly shows up with his Santa suit unbuttoned, and his scruffy real beard showing through where the Santa beard is hanging askew. At one point, after settling down in a big Phoenix department store, he reports to his Santa's Village chair so drunk, he thinks the model reindeer are attacking him, and he returns the favor. Saddled with one kid after another on his uninviting lap, all he can muster is a grumpy "Waddaya want?" to each of them.

But there's one kid, addressed mostly as "Hey kid," who enters the picture and shakes things up. Played with almost angelic innocence by Brett Kelly, he's introduced - large, curly-haired and expressionless -- as someone who's used to being picked on by bullies. When he first comes across this peculiar Santa, he's freaked out by his unorthodox approach. But later, the kid gloms onto him, allowing him to live in his fancy house (Mom has vanished, Dad is "away," and only Grandma -- a gloriously dilapidated Cloris Leachman -- lives there with him), and unleashing a barrage of Christmas-related questions reminiscent of a 3-year-old repeatedly asking "But why?"

Needless to say, the kid changes Willie and Willie changes the kid. But there's nothing sweet and treacly about it. Except for a few moments of seriousness tossed in to show the kid's daily predicament with life, the film maintains its sharp edge. A side story with store manager John Ritter (in one of his last films) and store security head Bernie Mac hits and misses (although a visual of Mac smoking half a cigarette in one drag is priceless and is undoubtedly a contribution from executive producers Joel and Ethan Coen). And there are a few lulls in the comedic pacing (another Coen attribute). But the film continuously comes roaring back to full speed in its mission to leave audiences either howling or aghast.

The only really uncomfortable thing about it is Thornton's seemingly endless swearing right in front of the film's under-10 cast members. And one has to wonder how young Brett Kelly was prepared for this role, since he gets the brunt of the cursing sessions.

It's a good thing that Christmas has become a crass commercial affair. If it was still a religious holiday, the Republicans would have this film banned.

Tár @ The Kenworthy

Fri., Dec. 9, 7 p.m., Sat., Dec. 10, 7 p.m. and Sun., Dec. 11, 4 p.m.
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