A bawdy, non-politically correct comedy that wears its considerable chip on its shoulder with a certain unmitigated glee, Bad Santa may be one of the most one-note comedies of the year, but it's also one of the funniest, packing three times as many laughs as Elf, a movie too timid to commit to anything beyond the notion of a set-piece. Written by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Cats & Dogs) and directed by Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World, the documentary Crumb), Bad Santa is a film whose vulgar insolence is manifest from the start — there's not so much an arc as a furiously maintained plateau — yet it's also a strangely involving picture, akin to Michael Ritchie and Walter Matthau's classic Bad News Bears in its annoyed and lecherous yet ultimately relatable humanity.
A deliciously irritable Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie Stokes, a coarse, washed-up, boozed-up department store Santa Claus whose self-loathing has transformed into a general nastiness and truculence that oozes from every pore. He swears at kids, urinates in his pants and screams down mothers who try to approach him as he eats. The Santa gig is his con, though; together with his increasingly exasperated dwarf partner Marcus (Tony Cox), the two suffer Novembers and Decembers in humiliating costume in order to pull off Christmas Eve heists. It's worked for eight years running, but when they settle in Phoenix, the doting attentions of a fat, picked-on kid (Brett Kelly, above right) drive Willie even further past distraction.
Those smitten with the softly rhythmic, oddball charms of Zwigoff's first two films will be largely thrown by his work here; the film seems undertaken more as a curiosity or perhaps to settle a bet. It's not that smooth most of the time, but it does share a rich and unflinching affinity for damaged characters with those earlier efforts. Zwigoff doesn't insert any leavening winks, either, to try to let Thornton's character off the hook, and let audiences know that they're all in on the joke together.
In interviews, Thornton has described the movie as bringing to bear the sensibility of South Park upon the spirit of It's a Wonderful Life, and he's not far off really. Bad Santa is lewd, irresponsible and in its narrative longview perhaps not extremely well sketched. Yet its unrelenting nature, winning supporting players (the late John Ritter, Bernie Mac and Lauren Graham all guest, to bizarrely amusing effect) and consistently hilarious joke writing can't help but win you over. It's comedy outside the lines, and it's absolutely wonderful — a twisted holiday movie for "the rest of us." (Dimension, R, 93 minutes)