Cruel Yule

St. Nick is nefarious in a very unjolly Bad Santa

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He's foulmouthed, alcoholic and, from time to time, incontinent. He's not just a bad Santa, he's the anti-Santy. Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) has only one talent, which is for cracking safes, and one M.O., which is taking an annual job as a department-store Kris Kringle, using that cover to case the joint and lifting all the seasonal cash from its strongbox on Christmas Eve. In this he is abetted by Marcus (Tony Cox), who plays Willie's helpful elf by day and then worms his way through tight spaces to disarm security systems by night.

Is regeneration a possibility for Willie? Sure. This is a Christmas movie. But it's also a Terry Zwigoff film, and the auteur of such dark delights as Crumb and Ghost World is not about to abandon his obsession with dysfunction among the lower socioeconomic classes. He holds back Willie's reformation until the last possible moment.

Willie's instrument of change is a fat and irredeemably nerdy, irredeemably innocent lad, Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), with whom Willie moves in. There's a purity about Thurman, earnestly carving Willie a rather phallic pickle for a present, that finally reaches Willie's stony soul. And ours.

Bad Santa is not for everyone. The plot is full of holes, and its language is worse than it has to be. But it has some swell supporting performances and a lot of vulgar inventiveness, and best of all, it plugs into--and electrifies--the mostly unacknowledged grimness that lies just beneath our holiday cheer. Go ahead! Have yourself a wary little Christmas. --By Richard Schickel