Bah, Humbug! Bad Santa Renews Xmas Spirit

Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa , from a screenplay by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, is the funniest send-up of bad Christmas karma I have ever seen. It’s also one of the happiest surprises of this already wearisome ho-ho-ho season, burdened as it is with an excess of hype, hysteria and hypocrisy. Mr. Zwigoff and his screenwriters have set out to demolish, with humor, every last vestige of cheery falseness unleashed around this time each year. With more F-word profanity than any Christmas movie I can think of-more even than your average R-rated movie- Bad Santa virtually orders the tots to stay away from this wonderfully defiant, adults-only entertainment. And yet (and this is the amazing part), Bad Santa ends up with the same deeply felt Christmas spirit as the familiar Yuletide classics, beginning with the first screen adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol . I’m thinking particularly of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), George More O’Ferrall’s The Holly and the Ivy (1952), and Bob Clark and Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story (1983) as movingly grown-up predecessors to Bad Santa .

Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie, the bad Santa in question, with a perpetually hung-over scowl for anyone foolish enough to seek holiday cheer on the basis of his seasonal attire. In fact, Willie is a professional safecracker who merely uses his Santa costume as a cover for casing the department stores that hire him with his partner in crime, Marcus (Tony Cox), a mean-spirited African-American dwarf who masquerades as Santa’s elf. Much of the movie is merriment, and the dramatic arc arises from our gradual realization that Marcus is not only the brains and driving force of the covertly felonious team, but that he is also becoming ominously displeased with Willie’s drunkenness and un-Santa-like womanizing. Willie and Marcus are initially so broadly drawn as diabolical inversions of all that is supposed to be lovable about Santa and his elf that the moral divergence between Willie and Marcus is much less perceptible-which is part of the film’s subtlety. Also, as much as Willie and Marcus present themselves as cynical predators, the world in which they find themselves is hardly all sweetness and light and limitless credulity. Indeed, the only out-and-out “straight” character in the mix is Bob Chipeska (the late John Ritter), the store manager whom Willie and Marcus terrorize with the threat of an anti-discrimination lawsuit on behalf of minority “little people” when he proposes firing them both for improper behavior.

Willie and Marcus are less successful in gulling the store’s security chief, Gin (Bernie Mac), an unflappable African-American con man in his own right. Having seen through their scam from the outset, Gin coolly cuts himself in for half the booty following a hilarious session of one-sided haggling between the supremely confident security chief and an extremely frustrated Marcus. But this little transaction sets up a surprisingly dark dénouement that rearranges the moral alignment, with death and near-death disrupting the genre conventions.

Willie’s moral redemption is realistically slow in coming, but Mr. Thornton’s restraint in his moments of potentially explosive surliness enables him to control the pace of his character’s gradual awakening out of an alcoholic haze to the feelings of tenderness and love that had been slumbering in him. If Mr. Thornton had pulled out all the stops in his initially roguish period, he would’ve gotten a few big laughs from the audience, who would then rapidly tire of his one-note character. By keeping so much in reserve, and letting it out without much fuss, Mr. Thornton gives one of the best performances of the year in a part that could easily have degenerated into facetious farce. That it didn’t is also a credit to Mr. Zwigoff’s direction.

The two essential instruments of Willie’s redemption are a fat, easily bullied little kid (played with marvelously imperturbable patience by Brett Kelly) and a sweetly amusing lady bartender named Sue (Lauren Graham) with an unrealized sex fetish for Santa since childhood. The kid, whose father is away in prison for embezzlement, invites Willie into his luxurious home, in which the only other occupant is his comically somnolent grandmother (Cloris Leachman), while Sue invites Willie-in his Santa suit-into her bed without coyness or conditions.

In contrast to Willie’s easy, uncomplicated relationship with the very maternal Sue, Marcus is hitched up with Lois (Lauren Tom), a cold-as-ice Asian barracuda as ruthless as he is. The clues are all there for the film’s final confrontation between good and evil, except that there’s still an element of surprise involved. Willie and Marcus make such an engaging comedy team that we’re conditioned to expect them to exit together smiling and happy. But Mr. Thornton’s (and Mr. Zwigoff’s) Willie is made of much sterner stuff.

Cerebral Cartooning

Sylvain Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville has received rapturous notices from most of my esteemed colleagues, but my first reaction was somewhat different: It was too cerebral, too strange and too art-gallery conscious for my taste in animation-which, I’m embarrassed to say, hasn’t progressed much since Dumbo (1941). Part of the problem is that I’ve spent my life in the fantasy apparatus of narrative live-action cinematography-a tantalizing medium that merges creative art and recorded reality. Animation, for better or worse, is all creativity with varying degrees of anthropomorphic allegory. Though I’ve been moderately amused by some animation over the years, it’s not really my turf.

Still, as more and more of my friends have talked to me about The Triplets of Belleville , I’ve begun to savor isolated images that have stuck in my memory. Above all, I love Bruno, the dog that grows old, fat and clumsy pursuing his obsession for barking at moving trains ever since a toy train ran over his tail as a puppy. Significantly, Bruno is the only character in Belleville with a dream life of his own; the sight of him lumbering up the stairs is as moving an image as any I’ve ever seen. Perhaps it’s the recurring rear view that makes Bruno so, well, doggedly human.

There are some other, equally interesting characters in the story (besides the triplets themselves). The old, round-faced grandmother and her equally round-faced grandson are drawn in minimalist lines, making them emotionally distanced from the more accessible parent-child figures of conventional kids’ cartoons. The grandmother single-mindedly looks for something to interest her mostly catatonic grandson, and when he shows a liking for his new tricycle, she begins training him in earnest for the Tour de France. He grows up to be a perpetually exhausted, beak-nosed freak with outsized leg muscles. But on his first race, he’s kidnapped by the French mafia, who force him to compete in a bizarre indoor replica of the Tour de France. (Using a process-shot screen simulating the distance traversed by the cyclist, the gamblers in the gallery bet on the computed outcome.)

The triplets themselves are a French version of the Andrews Sisters, but much jazzier. They are first seen in their youth as performers on a televised variety show, but for most of the film they’re withered yet still rhythm-conscious hags who help the grandmother rescue her grandson from the hoodlums in ways that defy gravity and every other law of physics and probability. Belleville itself is part Paris, part New York and part Montreal, though entirely populated by the clinically obese-a painterly mannerism that reads as an anti-American message to some reviewers. I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

When the grandmother puts her foot out and sends the pursuing gangsters’ cars tumbling to their doom, I couldn’t help thinking of my own brave mother, who once faced down a gun-toting would-be burglar and made him run for his life when she picked up an ax. The comparative abstractness of Mr. Chomet’s vision allows the mind to wander freely. So I guess I must’ve liked the Triplets of Belleville after all.

War Crimes

Norman Jewison’s The Statement , from a screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel by Brian Moore, makes the most reprehensible antihero imaginable into its protagonist. Pierre Brossard (Michael Caine) is still on the run, 40 years after he is shown murdering French Jews during the Vichy era. Now in his 70’s, he’s the object of a two-pronged manhunt: the first by an avenging half-Jewish magistrate (Tilda Swinton) and a conscientious French Army officer (Jeremy Northam); and the second by mysterious forces within the Catholic Church and the French government intent on silencing Brossard before he reveals the identities of his protectors for the last four decades.

The problem with the scenario is this: Who exactly are we supposed to root for? To his credit, Mr. Caine creates a credibly unheroic, guilt-ridden religious fanatic, a Mel Gibson–type reactionary Catholic who opposes the liberalizing tendencies in the church-explicitly in the movie, the church’s abandonment of the Latin liturgy. Yet Brossard remains a formidable adversary for his enemies, managing to kill two of his would-be assassins during the chase.

Another problem: It’s bad enough that the performers, a largely British cast of well-known actors, are pretending to be French-but on top of that, they’re speaking English. (And this at a time when more and more English-language films set in foreign locales are resorting to incorporating the native tongue.)

Still, the human dimensions of the story are subordinate to the real moral issue at the center of the film: the Catholic Church’s active role in the Holocaust. But as the youngest possible Holocaust criminals reach and pass their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, and the rest die off from natural causes, one wonders how much longer this subject will be relevant to the political situation in Europe. A new wave of anti-Semitism is being nurtured under the cover of supposed sympathy for the stateless Palestinians, and an antipathy to the state of Israel. (Why do these sentiments rarely correspond, for example, to a sympathy for the Tibetans, and an antipathy to China?)

Nonetheless, it’s good to see such estimable performances from Mr. Caine, Ms. Swinton, Mr. Northam, Charlotte Rampling, Alan Bates and Ciarán Hinds, who are all gainfully employed on an increasingly outdated subject.

Film Classics

The adventuresome Film Forum is giving discerning cineastes an early Christmas gift: An 18-film retrospective of Josef von Sternberg’s dazzlingly visual career runs from Dec. 12 to 25, beginning with the highly recommended new 35-millimeter print of Shanghai Express (1932) on Dec. 12 and 13, as well as the new 35-millimeter print of The Devil Is a Woman (1935) on Dec. 14. Even more strongly recommended are Underworld (1927) and Thunderbolt (1929) on Dec. 15, with both classic silent films being shown for a single admission. Less recommended are Jet Pilot (1957) and Anatahan (1954) on Dec. 16; but you can’t afford to miss The Last Command (1928) and Dishonored (1931) on Dec. 17, and Morocco (1930) and The Docks of New York (1928) on Dec. 18. Also highly recommended is Blonde Venus (1932) in a new 35-millimeter print, screening on Dec. 19 and 20. Moderately recommended are An American Tragedy (1931) and Crime and Punishment (1935) on Dec. 22 and The Shanghai Gesture (1941) and Macao (1952) on Dec. 23. And the highest recommendation for last: The Blue Angel (1930) and the documentary The Epic That Never Was (1965) on Dec. 24 and 25. The Film Forum is located at 209 West Houston Street; call 212-727-8110 for further details.