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Bad Santa - Preview & US reaction



Preview by: Jack Foley

AT A time when Hollywood traditionally likes to overdose on saccharine-coated fare, it is refreshing to find that Disney, of all people, have put out a slightly less traditional festive movie.

Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa casts Billy Bob Thornton as one of the most crooked, corrupted and downright hysterical Kris Kringles ever to grace the screen.

Produced by the Coen brothers, and inspired by a mix of movie classics, including the outrageous one-liners and outcasts of ‘The Bad News Bears’, and the riotous impertinence of South Park, Bad Santa is being billed as ‘a Christmas comedy unlike any other’.

And it has gone down a storm with US critics, who have treated its hilarity like a breath of fresh air, amid the glut of sickly-sweet children’s movies which traditionally pack out cinemas this time of the year.

Zwigoff has already developed a hip, cult following, not to mention critical acclaim, for his first two movies, Crumb and Ghost World, but describes Bad Santa as his most accessible comedy to date, all the while pulling no punches on a wild ride through Christmas' outlandish, funnier side.

Yet, in suitably indie style, the film skewers classic holiday traditions such as the rampant commercialism which surrounds this time of the year, smart-mouthed mall rugrats and Santa's saintly image.

Thornton portrays Willie T. Stokes, a washed-up, wise-cracking Department Store Santa who can't help but be more naughty than nice.

Underneath his ill-fitting red suit, Willie is actually a safecracker who makes one big score every year – on Christmas Eve.

As shoppers head home from the mall, this Santa and his ingenious Elf - Willie's midget partner-in-crime, Marcus (Tony Cox) - crack the store safe and make off with their own holiday stash.

But then comes Phoenix, where Santa and his Elf find their annual heist endangered by a pesky store manager (John Ritter), a savvy mall detective (Bernie Mac), a sexy Santa fan (Lauren Graham) and an innocent, but beleaguered eight-year-old misfit (Brett Kelly) ,who decides to believe that Willie - as intoxicated, acid-tongued and felonious as he seems to be - is the real Santa he's been seeking.

Thornton sums the film up by saying: "This is a story that brings the sensibility of 'South Park' to the spirit of 'It's A Wonderful Life.' It turns your typical idea of a Christmas comedy on its head."

While Zwigoff recalls that he was drawn to the project after reading the script on a plane and laughing so hard he was ‘almost embarrassed’.

He adds: "What also appealed to me was the challenge of making this unsympathetic character sympathetic. I usually find that Christmas films ladle on the cheap sentiment, but with this story I saw a chance to do something more truthful.

"That's what I liked so much about the screenplay - it's harder edged and more true and, therefore, ultimately more moving."

UK audiences won’t, however, be able to enjoy the movie until later next year…

US reaction

Critics have largely been lining up to heap praise on Bad Santa, despite initial scepticism among the more traditional promoters, who criticised Disney for opting to distribute such fare.

Leading the fanfares is the Los Angeles Times, which wrote that ‘this is a superb stink bomb of an entertainment, generously larded with jokes about alcoholics, short people, dim children and the kind of sexual congress that until recently was illegal in nine states’.

The Chicago Sun-Times critic, meanwhile, opined that ‘I didn't like this movie merely because it was weird and different; I liked it because it makes no compromises and takes no prisoners. And because it is funny’.

And the San Francisco Examiner’s critic confessed that ‘I have been laughing myself silly almost every day since I saw it more than a week ago’.

The New York Times, meanwhile, noted that it ‘takes all the Christmas season’s bad vibes and converts them into an achingly funny and corrupt dark comedy’.

Given the nature of the film, however, there were bad reviews, with Entertainment Weekly dismissing it, merely, as ‘rancid’ and ‘one-note’, while the Toronto Star felt that ‘it rides a one-trick reindeer that tires well before the second reel, and it mistakes crudity and cruelty for humour’.

LA Weekly, meanwhile, lamented it for getting stuck in a rut.

The San Francisco Examiner, however, continues the good vibe surrounding it, by noting that it is ‘a tasteless, vulgar, savage assault against everything that is good and decent in the Christmas season. I think you are going to like it’.

While Arizona Republic noted that ‘the movie actually has a heart - a coal-black heart, but a heart nonetheless - and it's bitingly funny’.

The Hollywood Reporter, meanwhile, wrote that it is ‘extremely funny - at times sidesplittingly so - thanks to Zwigoff's way with raw irreverence and Thornton's perfectly pitched, ready-for- anything performance’.

And The Washington Post noted that ‘Thornton, with his one-of-a-kind drawl, his lazy gaze, restless shaggy eyebrows and misanthropic attitude, seems to be the movie's essential X-factor’.

USA Today wrote that ‘it's such an original that it could eventually become the No. 1 cult movie of 2003’, while the Los Angeles Daily News felt that ‘it happens to be one of the year's funniest movies, a little one-note at times, but, boy, Zwigoff knows how to make some crazy music from that single note’.

Rolling Stone concludes this overview, however, by predicting that ‘it could become a Christmas perennial for Scrooges of all ages’.

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