It's almost like this film needs two reviews -- one for the dozen folks I know who will simply love it and declare it the greatest Christmas movie of all time, and one for everybody else, who will be appalled.
If you've fantasized about Santa engaging in anal intercourse, if you understand the need to drink a pint of hooch before showing up for your job working with kids, if you find Billy Bob Thornton repeatedly saying the seven naughtiest words in all their compounding and qualifying glory in his hillbilly accent to be pretty funny, and if you think that today's politically correct films suffer from not having enough stupid fat kid and nasty dwarf/midget/whatever jokes ... then celebrate the release of the meanest, darkest Christmas movie ever. Everybody else can take the kids to the bland but inoffensive Elf.
Willie T. Soke (Thornton) is one dissolute Santa Claus; he and his "elf" partner Marcus (Tony Cox) suffer through their low-budget North Pole mall act in order to gain access to rip off the store. Marcus is the brains of the operation; Soke can barely wear the Santa suit without pissing in it, but he can crack a safe. Comic circumstances require that Soke move in with Thurman (Brett Kelly), a lonely pudgy boy who believes in "Santa."
Fans of director Terry Zwigoff -- who exhibited a sensitive touch in his two previous films celebrating outsiders, the biography Crumb and the melancholy Ghost World -- may be baffled by Bad Santa. It's not that Zwigoff isn't entitled to unload a deep dark film, especially on such an easy target as the enforced merriment of the holiday season -- it's just that the film should be better.
It's basically a one-joke film: Santa is an asshole. Profanity serves as a cheap substitute for incisive or clever humor. Hurling abuse at dazed kids in scene after scene grows tiresome, then uncomfortable. (I've heard the lip from today's kids -- can't one of them bitch back at Santa?) Other jokes like Soke's perpetual toting of a bottle, Marcus' height or Thurman's narcoleptic granny get beaten to death with repetition.
Bad Santa -- for better or worse -- never does let up in its misanthropy. This earns my grudging admiration because I have no love for a holiday film like Scrooged that starts deliciously nasty but ends in lots of group hugs and valuable lessons. And the film does harbor a few inspired moments: Marcus' elf-ear tips, which evidently don't come in shades guaranteed to blend with the African-American skin tones, Thurman's perverse literalness, and -- here's something I never thought I'd say -- every moment that the late John Ritter is on the screen.