Bad Santa

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“Bad Santa” is a hilariously vulgar film that I thoroughly enjoyed but that I cannot in good conscience actually recommend to anyone. Well, maybe to a few friends and acquaintances whose tastes I know well enough to know that they, too, will find it more funny than offensive. Everyone else, stay away.

Directed by the odd and cynical Terry Zwigoff (“Crumb,” “Ghost World”), the film takes delight in its shocks, but it pulls them off with such panache and zippy humor that they feel more entertaining than appalling. We’ve all endured enough unfunny “shock” comedians and disc jockeys to know that being alarming isn’t the same thing as being funny. Zwigoff, who co-scripted with John Requa, Glenn Ficarra and Arnie Marx from a story by Joel and Ethan Coen, knows the difference. Make an audience laugh hard enough and they won’t mind the assault on their sensibilities.

Our hero is Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton), an embittered, alcoholic, foul-mouthed reprobate safecracker who spends one month a year working as a department store Santa. Why? Because it gives him and his partner, a dwarf named Marcus (Tony Cox) who works as his sidekick elf, access to the store’s alarm system and safe. Every year it’s a new city, new names, and a new hundred thousand dollars (or so) to tide them over until next Dec. 1.

Willie hates children, and hates Santa, and hates himself so much that after every job, he insists he’ll never do it again, that he’d kill himself first. And every year, he gets dragged back into it, more hateful and miserable than the year before.

This particular year, he and Marcus are in Arizona, where they encounter an especially fat and dim-witted child who for most of the film is simply called Kid (Brett Kelly). The Kid lives with his senile grandmother (Cloris Leachman), who doesn’t notice that Willie has moved in for the month, a move he deems necessary after he returns to his flophouse motel one evening to find cops rifling through his room. The Kid is picked on by his peers, too large and stupid to have friends, and takes to Willie (who he seems to believe actually is Santa Claus) immediately.

This being a dark comedy — and I mean dark, pitch-black, with hardly an honest emotion to be found anywhere — Willie’s heart is not melted by the boy, at least not in the traditional sense. Part of the film’s filthy charm, in fact, is that it actively rebels against all the elements typically found in holiday fare. Willie and the Kid bond, but only barely, and not so you’d notice. When the Kid makes a gift for Willie, is it something sweet and heartwarming, something that indicates he understands Willie’s secret soul? No, it’s a piece of wood that he has carved into the shape of a pickle, and which he has bled all over in the process. Take THAT, “Miracle on 34th Street.” Up YOURS, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The sight of a bedraggled Santa swearing like a sailor and having sex with girthy women, not surprisingly, ceases to be amusing after a while, once we have grown accustomed to it. Still, I admire Thornton’s commitment to the role, giving it as much attention as he does his more serious parts. Commitment goes a long way toward making comedy work, and Thornton spits out his most bilious lines with the venom they deserve.

Tony Cox is a good match for him, half his height but twice his mouth, and Bernie Mac is enjoyable as a chain-smoking mall security guard. John Ritter, in his last film role, plays the mall’s nervous, squeaky-clean manager.

As a remedy to syrupy holiday films that plead with us not to be cynical or skeptical, “Bad Santa” is a rather pleasant bit of bittersweet candy. It should be approached only by those whose tastes run that way, to be sure, but connoisseurs of such finery will find it pretty @&*%@ delectable.

B (1 hr., 31 min.; R, pervasive harsh profanity, some very strong sexuality, abundant crude and vulgar humor.)