Bad Santa is so over-the-top in its offensiveness that it's hard to figure out why it's so damn funny. Normally, when a movie is this in-your-face, the cruel intentions wear thin after the first half hour. Profanity can certainly lose its charm upon repeated use. Which is why I couldn't figure out, during a lazy afternoon screening, why I kept watching -- and laughing -- right along with two middle-age women or why the elderly couple several rows in front didn't walk out.
In fact, Bad Santa seemed to get funnier as it went along, happily hammering away on a one-note song sung completely off-key. It's probably because Billy Bob Thornton delivers what might be the performance of his career -- Carl from Sling Blade has gone off his meds, broken out of the mental institution and is ready to exact his own form of revenge on a cruel world. Some folks call it comedy, mmm-hmmm. Cursing is best left for rednecks and Brooklynites, and nobody cusses better than Thornton, who almost looks like he's playing himself pre-stardom. His dulled eyes, five-day growth of hair and drunken swagger suggest a man screwed by life and ready to pay back in kind. When he shoves yet another kid off his urine-stained lap with a trademark "get lost," you know he knows, deep down, his own youth was robbed from him.
Thornton is Willy Stoke, the Santa in question and the very definition of a ne'er-do-well. He lies, cheats, steals, drinks and screws his way through life -- he'd invent an 11th Commandment just to break that one, too -- as a department-store Claus with a "little person" (Tony Cox) as his partner in crime. If he can stand erect long enough, Willy will get them both hired for the season, and when the timing's right, this Grinch really will steal Christmas. That he can get through any given heist is a miracle to his partner, who spends most of the movie deriding Willy for his evil ways (except for the larceny part, of course). Santa's elf always seems one Willy screw-up away from taking his "mail-order bride" (Lauren Tom) and going his own way. But they are apparently stuck with each other -- what would Butch Cassidy do without the Sundance Kid?
So off to Phoenix they go, for what may or may not be one last score. They snag a job despite the better judgment of department store manager (the late John Ritter, acting as simpering as he did in Sling Blade, strangely enough) and under the suspicion of the security chief (funny but under-used Bernie Mac). You could easily quibble that no store chief in his right mind would ever hire, much less retain, such a lout, but because Zwigoff loves broadly drawn characters and stories (comic books, if you will), we have to assume this is just another bizarro world. Willy strikes up a romance with Sue (Lauren Graham of The Gilmore Girls), a bartender whose Freudian Santa fetish is rightly compared with (as Willy puts it) a man's fondness for big breasts. (Sue's battle cry in the heat of the moment, like much of the movie's dialogue, is succinct, to the point and unprintable.)
But for every Grinch there is a little Cindy Lou Who, and Willy's comes in the form of the World's Biggest Dork, a literally snot-nosed 10-year-old (Brett Kelly). Cursed with a spare tire of a belly and a shock of blonde hair the texture of a Brill-O pad, The Kid is as much a loser as Willy is but before being spoiled by life. He loves Willy and peppers him with questions and unquestioned idolatry. If he doesn't warm Willy's heart, he surely worms his way into his life, setting up what will surely be an ill-fitting, sugary ending that almost all but ruins everything before. Like the movie itself, the kid keeps coming. It's a war of attrition; something's gotta give.
Will Willy mend his evil ways? Will The Elf give up on him? Will they make the Big Score? Will The Kid learn to stick up for himself? Will Sue switch to the Easter Bunny? Very little of that matters. What matters is that Zwigoff knows a well-wrapped gift when he sees one, and that gift is Billy Bob Thornton.