There are exactly two big, heartwarming moments in Terry Zwigoff's gloriously rude black comedy Bad Santa: The first involves a raging, drunken mall Santa repeatedly punching an adolescent boy in the face, and the second centers on the delivery of a plush toy drenched in blood. Bad Santa isn't exactly It's A Wonderful Life, but deep within the accumulation of ugliness and bile lurks some genuine Christmas cheer, though it may take nose plugs and a shovel to find it. A Wild Turkey chaser to decades of sticky holiday sentiment, the film glares with the unmistakable crankiness of the man behind 1995's Crumb and 2001's Ghost World, yet it has his bristled soul, too. In resuscitating the wheezy old setup of an embittered loner redeemed by a doe-eyed imp, Bad Santa wants to be loved just like every other formulaic Hollywood comedy, but only on its own uncompromising terms, which just makes it all the more lovable. Perfect as the titular half-shaven rummy, Billy Bob Thornton joins R. Crumb and Ghost World's Enid in the proud tradition of Zwigoff heroes, playing another sour outcast who retches at everyday banality. Since nothing is more banal than mall Santas, Thornton presides over his own private hell at a department store in a suburban Arizona mall, where he and his partner in crime, a black "elf" played by Tony Cox, are working their annual robbery scheme. Before cracking the store's safe at season's end, Thornton has to tend to the gaggles of screaming kids, but when he isn't too plastered to take the throne, he greets them with muffled profanities or worse. (When one child wonders why his beard is falling off, he replies, "Because I loved a woman who wasn't clean.") Once store manager John Ritter and head security guard Bernie Mac start poking around, Thornton crashes with a pasty, snot-nosed fat kid (Brett Kelly) who holds an unwavering belief in Santa Claus. In other hands, Bad Santa might have been Death To Smoochy revisited. But Zwigoff's deadpan scowl is miles away from that film's strident wackiness, and more genuinely subversive and nasty to boot. Mainly, Bad Santa is just an ill-mannered, convulsively funny farce, as ripe as a Richard Pryor stand-up routine and centered on a heroic louse who leers at plus-sized asses and blasts a soccer mom for interrupting his break. Much like School Of Rock, Bad Santa salvages a tired, paint-by-numbers formula by resisting it every step of the way, stubbornly refusing to stop its juvenile fun until the last possible moment. Even then, Santa in a giving mood isn't what most children have in mind.
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