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Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Miracle on 34th Street were reshot with the lead character from Leaving Las Vegas as Santa Claus? In Leaving Las Vegas, Nicholas Cage plays a guy who moves to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. That film, my fav of 1995, walked an incredibly fine line in order to be entertaining yet bleak. Bad Santa tries, mostly successfully, to walk a similar fine line. Bad Santa takes the most sentimental of plot lines, where a bad man meets a troubled kid and together they find redemption and subverts it. What makes this such a good funny film is that they stick with the subversion until the last few minutes when they blink and go for a sort-of-happy ending. Until then, this is a very enjoyable black comedy about a safe cracker (Billy Bob Thornton), who along with his small sidekick (Tony Cox), work each Christmas as Santa and his elf while casing the store the are working in. Then they rob the store on Christmas Eve. Thornton is slowly drinking himself to death as he sinks lower and lower into depravity. His partner, the elf, is the brains behind the operation and tries unsuccessfully to keep Thornton on the straight and narrow. Thornton meets a young boy (Brett Kelly) with severe behavioral problems brought on by the fact that he has been abandoned by his parents and forced to live with his alzheimer-suffering grandmother (Cloris Leachman). Thornton and his Santa-fetish girlfriend (Lauren Graham) move in with the kid. Meanwhile, the store manager (John Ritter) and security chief (Bernie Mac) start to get suspicious about Santa.
The first subversion of this movie is that you can't see any redeeming features about Thornton's character, nor is there hope of any. The second is that the kid is totally unappealing. He is not just unloved but unlovable. Neither Thornton nor the kid appears to be capable of love or having a relationship with another human being. So naturally, they are drawn to one another. This is Billy Bob's ultimate Billy Bob role. So, no acting necessary. But he is great. Tony Cox is very good as the evil elf. This is the third film recently with dwarfs (in LOTR we prefer dwarves) in leading roles after The Station Agent and, of course, Elf. Ritter, in his last screen role, and Mac have some funny scenes together discussing Thornton's peccadilloes. Leachman isn't credited for her part as granny. In the last ten years, she has played 5 grandmothers. Maybe she didn't want another granny credit. Lauren Graham, best known as one of the Gilmore Girls, really sells you on the idea that she could be attracted to Thornton. Now that's acting!
This is a really funny movie. And, it is definitely not a kiddie movie. It doesn't even try to be PC. The script is well written and nastily funny. Watch out for the insult involving Leonardo Da Vinci. Bad Santa is directed by Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World) and the story is by the Coen boys. So some subversion was a foregone conclusion. The only disappointing thing in Bad Santa was at the end, where the movie decides to have a happy ending and bizarrely, get serious, all at the same time. It is unfortunate but it's only the last ten minutes or so. Up until then, it's very good and just the thing after taking the kids to Elf, The Cat in the Hat, Brother Bear and The Haunted Mansion. You deserve it for your sanity.