Bad Santa

dir. Zwigoff

Opens Wed Nov 26

Various Theaters

Bad Santa is the antithesis to the other good Christmas movie this year, Elf. Where Elf succeeds via hyper-ironic good cheer, Bad Santa succeeds through completely literal, uncompromising cheerlessness. Terry Zwigoff's steadfast refusal to sugarcoat his characters is at once terrible and wonderful; the first time we see Billy Bob Thornton's protagonist, Willy, he is throwing up in a back alley from drinking. Optimists beware: Zwigoff runs this alcoholism deep and true in Willy, and never comes close to deviating from it.

Despite his crippling, perpetual drunkenness, Willy possesses a strange gift: he can crack a mean safe. Every Christmas he and his fiery dwarf friend (Tony Cox, hilarious) team up as a Santa/elf team to work the papier-mâché North Pole in some generic department store, case the joint for a few days, then sneak in after hours and rob it. It's a ridiculous premise that feels almost like an afterthought as Zwigoff relentlessly mines the angst-riddled depths of his characters. Through a series of cinematically silly contrivances, Willy shacks up in the beautiful suburban house of an obese boy who thinks he's the real Santa. The boy (Brett Kelly), referred to simply as "the kid," is a typical, picked-on elementary school geek, with no friends and no life. Willy, unsympathetic to the very end, calls him names, shouts obscenities in his face, and eats all the chocolates in his Advent calendar. Through it all the kid remains oblivious, loving Santa always, and eventually Willy, through his drunken haze, starts to feel some love, too.

This is as sweet as it gets in Bad Santa. There are some interesting threads with Bernie Mac as the mall's manager and the late John Ritter (who looks terrible, incidentally) as Willy's boss, but they take second stage to Willy's rocky journey towards finally caring about someone besides himself. When Willy beats the shit out of some middle-school bullies who are picking on the kid, then confesses to Cox's character that it, "Felt good, like I was doing something constructive for once," we laugh--hard. We laugh because it's funny, and we laugh because it's true.