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Seasons Greedings

  Bad Santa

 

Terry Zwigoff, USA, 2003

Rating: 3.5

 

    Elf

 

Jon Favreau, USA, 2003

Rating: 3.3

Posted: December 18, 2003

By Laurence Station

As Christmas movies are required to do, Bad Santa and Elf -- two new additions to the canon -- come equipped with a built-in lesson. But the lesson that sticks with us isn't the obligatory "Good will towards men" sermonizing we've come to expect.

Bad Santa is a very dark, anti-Christmas comedy that wimps out in the end, growing warm and fuzzy when it should stay steadfastly unrepentant in its twisted take on the cheeriest of holiday seasons. Not being an independent, it isn't allowed to stay true to its downbeat worldview. Elf, on the other hand, is an utterly guileless, feel-good Christmas fable that promotes the genuine spirit of the season. There's not an ounce of irony to be found in its charming fish-out-of-water tale, save for the gravity-tilting, gratuitous product placement that nearly capsizes the good work accomplished by director Jon Favreau (Swingers, Made), his cast and crew.

Both, then, are major Hollywood releases compromised by the very industry that birthed them.

The lesson: Christmas is the season when Hollywood unveils serious Oscar contenders (i.e., low profit margin features) and must recoup the losses by releasing lightweight, more broadly targeted, audience-friendly fare. Hence, we get Bad Santa for the demographic cynical about the whole holiday season, and Elf for the demographic that has Cat in the Hat penciled in on its must-see entertainment calendars.

Bad Santa follows two con men: Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), an embittered, drunken wreck with a hyperactive predilection for anal sex and talent for cracking safes; and Marcus (Tony Cox), a midget whose primary interest in larceny stems from appeasing his overly materialistic wife Lois (Lauren Tom). Willie and Marcus have a unique scam. They only operate at Christmastime, working as Santa and his elf, and then rob the malls they perform in on Christmas Eve. Reuniting in Phoenix for their yearly heist, the mismatched pair, who bicker constantly (primarily due to the teetotaling Marcus' distaste for Willie's extreme vices and utter lack of discipline), set up shop in a mall managed by John Ritter (in his final film appearance -- and sadly stuck with a milquetoast, feckless character) and overseen by a chain smoking, laxative powder-drinking security chief (Bernie Mac). Mac's character is quickly on to the pair, and runs checks on them to find out their full M.O. before blackmailing them to get in on the action. On top of this, an 8-year-old boy named Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) latches onto Thornton's Santa and eventually brings him to his upscale home, where it's discovered that his father is doing time in jail for embezzlement, his mother is dead and his guardian grandmother (Cloris Leachman, with absolutely nothing to do) is comatose most of the time, when she's not preparing sandwiches.

Bad Santa is refreshing in how tightly it sticks to its crude, foul-mouthed guns. Director Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World) has many chances to make young Thurman redeem the clearly irredeemable Willie, but doesn't (though by film's end he's definitely dented Willie's seemingly impregnable misanthropic armor). Willie is an embittered alcoholic who desperately wants to die but is too cowardly to take his own life (save via long-term alcohol poisoning). And when Christmas Eve arrives, and Willie and Marcus do the job, Bad Santa actually appears well on its way to staying true to its bitter roots. But, either through studio meddling or (less likely) part of the original script, a (relatively) happy ending undermines the grim message the film's been sending from the outset: Scumbags will never change, no matter how much goodness they encounter. Thornton perfectly captures the empty soul of the movie, and he alone merits sitting through this unpleasant, smartly offbeat and utterly un-P.C film (even with the lame ending).

Like Bad Santa, Elf is powered by its lead. Will Ferrell is Buddy, an orphan who snuck into Santa's bag some thirty years ago, and was subsequently raised by elves in the North Pole. Of course, no one ever told Buddy he wasn't an elf, and even though his stands six-foot-three, can grow facial hair, and is the most incompetent toymaker in the shop, he fails to make the connection. When his guardian, Papa Elf (a wonderful, stone-faced Bob Newhart), breaks the news and Santa (Ed Asner) confirms it, Buddy, armed with a photograph of his father (his birth mother has died) and his location (New York City, natch), treks off to reconnect with his roots. Unfortunately, Buddy's father (James Caan), a Scrooge-like publisher of children's books, is on Santa's Naughty List. It falls to Buddy, of course, to redeem him, and in the process gain acceptance from his long lost father in return.

Elf works as wonderfully as it does thanks to Ferrell, who, rather than attempting to imbue his role with a shred of depth, plays Buddy with a blank-slated, child-like sense of wonder. Whether he's discovering how an elevator works in the Empire State Building or redecorating a department store's toy section, Ferrell wholly commits his performance to one of discovery and awe. Elf is worth seeing for his performance alone, and might have rated even higher were it not bogged down throughout by its excessive, crass commercialization, from the toy store to prominent  Coca-Cola, Etch-A-Sketch, and  Pop Tart shots. (And isn't it odd, in a fable where Santa really does exist and really does have a huge book containing the name of every person in the world and what gifts they want, for consumers to even bother spending so heavily on items when Santa will bring the stuff free of charge? Certainly, FedEx or UPS would have reps out at the North Pole all the time competing for the Yuletide business.) Of course, the film does make the point that the spirit of Christmas is waning, and that it's getting harder for Santa to make his appointed rounds each year. It certainly would have been nice if the makers had stuck to this message themselves before Madison Avenue co-opted so much of their work.

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