A miserable conman and his partner pose as Santa and his Little Helper to rob department stores on Christmas Eve. But they run into problems when the conman befriends a troubled kid, and the security boss discovers the plot.
Somebody needed to make a comedy built around all of the holiday season hostility that goes up along with the decorations this time of year. The light-fingered director Terry Zwigoff and the screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are just the guys for such a task. "Bad Santa" takes all of the Christmas season's bad vibes and converts them into an achingly funny and corrupt dark comedy. Billy Bob Thornton is Willie T. Stokes, a burned-out, hard-drinking safecracker who's annually roused from sleeping one off during the most wonderful time of the year by his dwarf partner, Marcus (Tony Cox). As Marcus works as a department store elf, he also cases the store so that he and Willie can break in and relieve the joint of valuable merchandise. On this tour, they've ended up in Phoenix, which just adds to the wealth of hilarious incongruity. As a director, Mr. Zwigoff has a taste for finding the dramatic power of self-loathing and making it entertainment. His previous films, the documentary "Crumb" and the his fiction-film debut "Ghost World," both hinged on coping with epic tides of depression. "Santa" falls directly into that lineage. Mr. Thornton's face is drawn into a rictus of a snarl; his Willie anticipates trouble, and when it doesn't crop up on its own, he has to stir it up from the bottom of the pot. Willie is filled with the most distorted kind of narcissism imaginable, and for Mr. Thornton, it functions as a kind of star chemistry. Willie ladles it generously on the kids who line up to see him on his wobbly perch on Santa's throne: he's the kind of minimum-wage offal who has sent his victims on to thousands of hours of therapy. — Elvis Mitchell
2003-11-26 | Elvis Mitchell | Read the New York Times Review of Bad Santa