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Bad Santa: True weirdness cannot be faked

A review by R.H. Joseph

Director Terry Zwigoff made a terrible mistake in "Bad Santa:" he attempted to be what he most admires.

Judging by the current film's immediate predecessors, "Crumb" (1994) and "Ghost World" (2000), Zwigoff is captivated by iconoclasts, nonconformist visionaries whose creative impulse derives from a singular, misanthropic perspective.

Zwigoff attempts to be just such a character, to create a film as though he were another Robert Crumb, but he is not. You cannot fake iconoclasm, you can only admire it.

"Bad Santa" is an example of what can happen when a poseur substitutes affected bad behavior for the spontaneous cultural repudiation of a disgruntled artist.

Billy Bob Thornton is the bad Santa of the title. He's a foul-mouthed drunkard of the most despicable sort. Billy Bob's terrific; the problem with the film is unrelated to his performance.

Rather, the difficulty is with the nature of the character. Ten-year-olds may find the juxtaposition of Santa Claus uttering a steady stream of expletives wildly amusing, but Zwigoff is attempting something more: a cultural indictment of the sort manifest in Robert Crumb's comic books.

The depressing bleakness of a wretched, corrupt Santa is no substitute for the caustic, dismissive perceptions of a cerebral, creative malcontent.

There are numerous examples in the film of this effort by Zwigoff to substitute hackneyed adolescent juxtapositions for acerbic social commentary.

There's the pretty bartender who's attracted to the lush, for example. She enjoys celebrating life's mystery with Santa while exhorting him by name to suffuse his behavior with zeal in decidedly graphic terms. Titter, titter.

Then there's Santa's side kick Marcus (Tony Cox). An adult perhaps three and a half feet tall (titter, titter), much sport is made of struggling with the difference between dwarves and midgets (titter, titter).

You want to appreciate the difference between a poseur and an iconoclast, compare and contrast Zwigoff's cinematic effort with Randy Newman's song "Short People." The first is an effort to make trouble, the second, art that inadvertently caused trouble.

Ironically, the most pronounced example of the absence of iconoclastic vision in Zwigoff is his inability to detect precisely this characteristic in Bernie Mac.

Again, compare and contrast Mac's performance in "Bad Santa" with the type of humor he employs in "The Original Kings of Comedy" (2000). Mac is screamingly funny in the latter because his sense of humor derives from the irrepressible singular vision characterizing the sort of perceptive, sardonic creator Zwigoff admires.

Rather than celebrating Mac for what he is, Zwigoff simply asks Mac to mug for the camera. It is said the difference between a comedian and a comic is that the former says funny things while the latter says things funny.

Less imaginative directors (I've seen Mac wasted in this fashion before) enjoy Mac the comedian and film Mac the comic. Pity.

If "Bad Santa" is John Ritter's last feature film then this too is a pity. Zwigoff calls upon the gifted comic to provide a clich? character in a clich? scenario.

Bob Chipeska (Ritter) is the uptight store manager who has trouble articulating any words describing coitus. He becomes all the more uncomfortable when he discovers Santa flagrante delicto, engaging in the sort of congress with which Howard Stern seems particularly obsessed. (I only watch it for the articles.)

Even as it troubles me to disparage Zwigoff – I love "Crumb" and "Ghost World" – it encourages me that vestiges of a kind heart and an ability to engender empathy and compassion in his audience underlie his efforts to appear the caustic curmudgeon.

Entwined with the increasingly degrading self-destructiveness of Santa is a story concerning the lout's relationship with a pre-adolescent pork chop known only as "The Kid" (Brett Kelly). We are to perceive the overstuffed loser as a reflection of Santa and through the lumpy lad Santa is permitted to grow emotionally.

It is within this subplot that Zwigoff evinces an ability to engage our hearts with nuance. A moment blossoms with self-discovery because it is beautifully conceived and photographed with restraint. Most directors lack such subtlety.

Could this be a turning point for Zwigoff? With any luck the director will cease attempting to be what he isn't and capitalize on what he may be: a talented artist of considerable warmth and humanity.

Celluloid memories: If beautifully crafted examinations of self-destructive behavior are best appreciated amidst the gloom of early winter begin with "Under the Volcano" (1984). Directed by John Huston, the film features a superlative performance by Albert Finney and the list of co-stars includes Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews and Katy Jurado. Finney portrays an alcoholic diplomat in Mexico during the 1930s attempting to do himself in with booze. In "The Grand Bouffe" (1973) four bored men decide to eat themselves to death. Directed by Marco Ferreri, starring Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret, and featuring some sublime food, this one's exceedingly difficult to watch. Eat first because you won't want to eat again for days. Finally, Jane Fonda's character attempts to dance herself to death in the excellent "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969). Directed by Sydney Pollack, the film also stars Michael Sarrazin, Sussanah York, Gig Young, Red Buttons, Bonnie Bedelia, Bruce Dern and Al Lewis. This exercise in bleakness takes place amidst the dance marathons popular during 1930s. If you watch more than one of these at a time you may require counseling.