Billy Bob Thornton (left) as Santa, screaming, crying, scared child as himself, and Tony Cox as Santa's little helper (courtesy photo)

What's a holiday movie without a surly department store Santa and a dwarf?

Bad Santa is vile. Snot-dripping and alley-puking, pants-pissing, and rotgut-swilling vile. It does not have redeeming social merit; it will not enrich your soul or teach you the meaning of Christmas. It starts bleak and goes down from there. If there were a great Mommy of cinema, she would skip the mouth-washing routine and put this baby in a car headed straight for a riverbed. We're not talking Farrelly Brothers naughty here, with bodily fluids gooping all over a heart of gold; we're talking a movie where teaching a kid about testicle-punching is considered a contribution to humanity.

And I have to say, it made me laugh a lot, even as I wondered how it could stay so relentlessly misanthropic.

The premise takes the old caricature - the drunken department store Santa Claus, grumpy to kids and likely to mean something unrelated to the Yule when he cries "ho ho ho!" - and makes it cartoonishly extreme, then adds a twist: This Santa (Thornton) is a safe cracker, and every year he and his partner (a dwarf who wears an elf costume) go to work for a new store, taking pictures with kids and casing the joint for a Christmas Eve heist.

But Thornton is coming unglued. He has lost all interest in keeping up appearances, and instead curses at children and sodomizes shoppers in the Big and Tall department dressing rooms. His meek boss (the late John Ritter, to whom the film is, er, "lovingly dedicated") would like to fire him gently, but is intimidated by the idea of firing Thornton's dwarf partner, who also happens to be black.

Bad Santa

Dir. Terry Zwigoff; writ. John Requa & Glenn Ficarra; feat. Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Bernie Mac, Brett Kelly, Lauren Graham, John Ritter (R)
Thornton lands a sweet arrangement, staying in the home of a moronic kid who keeps calling him "Santa" and offering to make him a sandwich. There is a senile grandma puttering around the house, but no other adult supervision. In almost any other film, this fat kid would be Thornton's road to salvation, showing him that it's important to care for others and respect yourself; Bad Santa gets around to something like that near the end, but you can tell the movie's heart isn't in it. It would rather sit around boozing and making fun of America's two-month celebration of December 25.

There probably has to be something rotten in your soul in order for you to enjoy Bad Santa, and if that's the case, there were quite a few hellbound individuals in the screening I caught. Some of the laughs were derisive, surely - when three males, one of them a "little person," go roundabout hitting each other in the groin, you laugh at a film instead of with it - but that seemed to be the desired response. Bad Santa will not make you a kinder person. But it may stoke your inner Scrooge just enough to get you through the Month of Commerce ahead. •

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