You better watch out: The ads for "Bad Santa" suggest that it's a wacky holiday romp.
Far from it: The movie is relentlessly dark. It's also infinitely funnier than you'd expect.
Director Terry Zwigoff proves again, as he did with "Ghost World" (one of the best films of 2001), how acutely observant he is of human quirks. And Thornton proves again, as he's done in nearly every film he's ever made, that he's not afraid to play a miserable character.
There's nothing likable about Willie, a part-time department store Santa Claus and full-time alcoholic con man. Yet he's strangely irresistible - to his reluctant partner (Tony Cox), a midget who dresses as an elf; to a bartender (the sexy, adorable Lauren Graham) who happens to have a Santa fetish; and to a chirpy, cherubic boy (Brett Kelly) who truly believes Willie is Kris Kringle and clings to him as a father figure.
Willie and Marcus (Cox, best known for his memorable supporting role in "Me, Myself & Irene") go from city to city, tolerating the seemingly endless array of children who want something shiny and new on Christmas morning. But the Santa gig is merely an excuse to get inside department stores in order to crack their safes and do a little after-hours shopping on Christmas Eve.
Then they get to Phoenix, where Willie's erratic behavior raises the suspicions of the department store manager (John Ritter in his last film role) and the security chief (an underused Bernie Mac), who's a suspicious character himself. Ritter, to whom the film is dedicated, plays the perfect uptight foil - similar to his character in "Sling Blade," in which he also co-starred with Thornton.
Willie is profane and anti-social, a chain smoker who drinks so heavily, he's oblivious when he urinates all over himself. He's an unscrupulous shell of a man with no chance at redemption - not that he wants one. Thornton plays him as if he were a character in a drama, without a trace of caricature, which makes him totally believable.
Somehow, Willie stumbles into a cushy life when he moves in with a chubby, insecure boy whose wealthy father is in prison; the only other person in the house is the boy's clueless grandmother (Cloris Leachman, who doesn't get to do much besides offer to make sandwiches). He also gets a girlfriend, whom he didn't pursue but doesn't mind having around.
The humor from screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who also wrote the much tamer "Cats & Dogs," sneaks up on you. While the film appears on its surface to be yet another exercise in cynicism, like the insufferably heavy-handed "Death to Smoochy," its surreal, deadpan nature is more reminiscent of the hugely underrated "Office Space."
It doesn't beat you over the head with the fact that it's raunchy and edgy - it simply is. Willie dismisses one child after another for their trite gift choices, then enjoys a quickie with a strange woman in the plus-size dressing room. It's all in a day's work.
Even when the film threatens to turn feel-good, it thankfully resists the urge; when Willie finally comes up with a toy for the boy who's inexplicably befriended him, it's covered in blood.
That's a perfect metaphor for the film itself.
"Bad Santa," a Dimension Films release, is rated R for pervasive language, strong sexual content and some violence. Running time: 95 minutes. Three stars out of four.