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Bad Santa

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Bad Santa

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac
Director: Terry Zwigoff
Rated: R
RunTime: 93 Minutes
Release Date: November 2003
Genres: Comedy, Christmas

*Also starring: Lauren Graham, John Ritter, Hayden Bromberg, Stu Brumbaugh, Ethan Phillips, Lauren Tom, Tony Cox

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1.  Harvey Karten review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review
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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, but not what you think. Yes, he is a man, but no, he only pretends to have reindeer and a sleigh with an army of elves working for him.. In fact, he prefers Miami and Phoenix to the North Pole and works with only one little guy who's not entirely satisfied with carving statues and sewing cloth. In fact, he appears almost to listen to what they say. They sit on his lap in a department store, give vent to their fantasies sometimes sneezing all over him and he appears to go along with whatever the small fry want for Christmas. Just one thing. You don't want to ask him for a liver transplant.

Santa is also known coincidentally as Willie T. Soke. When it comes to liquor he is not only soaked; he's perfectly sloshed, yet the three-feet tall fella usually at his side, Marcus, is not a product of his fevered, alcoholic imagination but an authentic elf, or midget, or in politically correct terminology one of the little people.

Everyone in this hilarious, dark comedy is flawed to one degree or another. Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) is a depressive, an alcoholic, a safecracker and while he knows how to love women, he's not exactly a friend to those under the age of twelve. But he'll learn, or the writers of this movie are not John Requa and Glenn Ficarra. The way he'll learn is not through a textbook or a therapy session, not as long as director Terry Zwigoff is telling him how to perform, but in the true spirit of educator John Dewey, he learns by doing. He does quite a lot.

Soke's thing is to work twice a year; once as an Easter Bunny (a role we're not privileged to see) and once as a department store Santa. As the soundtrack ironically intones the sounds of Bing Crosby, Soke is in Phoenix with a line of kids waiting to sit on his lap, all of whom get introduced by the department's maitre d', Marcus (Tony Cox). On the last day of his gig each year, this Santa having cased the joint for a week or so, hides out at closing time, and with the help of his small assistant he cancels the store alarm and proceeds to break open the safe, pocketing in one haul $100,000. The money is enough to go to Miami Beach, open a bar and buy a car or so he thinks, which is yet another fantasy since a bar is the last place you'd want him to be. While Marcus is not the guy who will set him straight, he gets his lessons in fair play and sentimentality not from New York Times' ethicist Randy Cohen but from a chubby third grader (Brett Kelly), a lonely boy whose dad is in the slammer, mother is who-knows where, and his grandmother (Cloris Leachman) is either comatose or making him sandwiches.

"Bad Santa" does not spend a single minute in a sober vein, keeping the visual and verbal gags flowing, all the more effective by coming across in deadpan style. The kid accepts razzes from his bullying schoolmates, sandwiches from his grandma, and compliments from Santa with equanimity. He'd be the sort who, if a defendant in a serious trial, would show no emotion when the guilty verdict is read. Even more deadpan, Willie T. Soke hustles every child who sits on his lap with an indifferent, "What d'ya want?", in one case replying to a girl who wants a bike, "How different."

Vulgar but happily without bathroom humor, "Bad Santa" has some terrific side roles, with the late John Ritter's playing an effete, prudish store manager dialoguing with the head of security, Gin Slagel (Bernie Mac), who embarrasses the manager every seven seconds by spouting a dirty word or imagining a boink. Drunk or not, boinking is in fact what Soke can be counted on doing, especially with a gal who has a Santa fetish, Sue (Lauren Graham), who wears a Santa hat in bed.

This is the kind of picture that should encourage box offices around the country to display a big sign, "This picture is rated R and is not for parents who have their ten-year-olds in tow." Sure enough, at the screening I attended, one pair of thirty- somethings hustled their six children out of the theater after the "f" word was spoken a second time. Don't these people read reviews? That's what the critics are here for. Read us!

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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