December 01, 2003 12:00 PM

COMEDY

Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, John Ritter, Lauren Graham

Do not let the kids near this hilariously nasty, for-adults-only Christmas treat. It would traumatize tykes to see Santa guzzling Liquor, swearing a blue streak and bedding pretty much any woman who crosses his blurry line of vision.

This amusingly venal, possibly shocking tale is just what Scrooge ordered. Bad Santa follows the squalid exploits of Willie Stokes, a sour, twice—divorced excon who gets himself hired as Santa at a mall or department store every December and then, on Yule Eve, breaks into the place’s safe, using the loot to pay his beer bill until next year.

All is going as planned at a store in Phoenix for Stokes and his diminutive partner in crime (Cox), who works as Santa’s elf, until a lonely kid latches tight onto Stokes, believing him to be the real St. Nick. “Where are the other elves?” the boy (Brett Kelly) wonders. “They’re staying with Mrs. Santa, and I get ’em on weekends,” snaps Stokes, in one of the few fit-to-print exchanges.

How much one enjoys the snarky Santa will depend on one’s liking for dark comedy. Director Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World) serves it up pitch black here. The script gives short shrift to minor characters (Ritter, in a deft final film performance, plays the store’s manager, and Bernie Mac its security officer), favoring putting Thornton front and center. Good decision. All slouchy dissolution, he makes Stokes’s embitterment enormously funny, yet there’s a tragic edge to his performance befitting a Eugene O’Neill traumafest. As his fed-up partner, Cox is a foulmouthed riot, and Graham—playing a barmaid with an itch only Santa can scratch—is sexy fun in her few scenes. (R)

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