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Naughty St. Nick

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In the masterful Crumb and Ghost World, Terry Zwigoff suggested a director founding his career on alienated, countercultural weirdoes transformed into underappreciated heroes.

Billy Bob Thornton offers a seasonal answer to those underground protagonists. A very, very bad Santa with a cesspool mouth and a drinking habit, Willie uses his yearly Claus appearance to case shopping malls, which he then boosts with the help of his choleric, vicious little elf (Tony Cox). Where Santa is all about giving, this Bad Santa just takes, takes, takes.

But this is a Christmas story after all (albeit one originated by Americana kitsch duo Joel and Ethan Coen), and so the fornicating, cussing Santa soon finds even his frozen daiquiri heart thawed by a weird little fat kid who worships Santa with the single-minded dementia of small children and the mentally ill.

In Bad Santa, Zwigoff samples the conventions of the curmudgeonly W.C. Fields/Adam Sandler type who's won over by a half-pint. The difference is, Zwigoff makes the kid so annoying, he dares you to take a liking to the little bastard. The kid's freakish, obsessive personality suggests any of the family Crumb in their formative years.

Bad Santa has the laddish vitriol of a certain subculture that is unapologetic about the depravity of human urges -- a Rabelaisian litany of sex and piss and hunger seen in both Santa and his straight-job equivalent, the fastidious security guard, hilariously played by Bernie Mac. Invested with the antisocial wit of alternative comics, Bad Santa is a rude, crude, and often funny roll in the Hollywood muck.

The problem is Zwigoff's talents are deeper than this, and he seems to be both thumbing his nose at dopey Hollywood movies, while also disingenuously playing their game. Zwigoff gave anger at America's vapidity real heart and anguish in Crumb and Ghost World. But in Bad Santa the tone is snider and more throwaway.

Though entertaining, Bad Santa leaves a sour aftertaste that makes you feel this is Zwigoff's depressing boast to Hollywood, that he too can play their nasty misanthropic game. Opens Nov. 26.

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