There used to be a distinction between tepid, flavorless mainstream comedy and the bilious black humor that bubbled up from underground. But if the rancid, one-note Bad Santa, inexplicably directed by Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World, Crumb), is any evidence, that distinction has become meaningless: Heartless outrage is just another spoke in the entertainment product wheel. Billy Bob Thornton, cast as a boozy, lecherous, dirty-mouthed, short-fused lout who scowls and screams his way through jobs as a department-store Santa, is introduced to us seated at a bar in his scraggly red suit, where he’s pickling his poisoned soul with Old Grand-Dad whiskey. ”I’ve seen some pretty s—ty things in my life,” he growls, ”but nothing has ever sucked a– like this.” If that doesn’t make you laugh, be warned: The movie isn’t going to get much wittier than that.
Why does this scurrilous loser, who loathes kids and loathes himself, work as a Santa Claus? It’s all a scam, a means of gaining late-night access to department stores, where Thornton and his diminutive elf partner, played by Tony Cox, proceed to crack safes and swipe merchandise. The movie could have been funny if it had used Thornton’s garbage-tongued bum to spit at the excesses of the consumer-culture Christmas. But Bad Santa, which might just as well have starred Andrew Dice Clay, isn’t up to much of anything besides pretending that swearwords and snot-nosed insults, served up by Santa with an almost institutional monotony, aren’t just naughty. They’re — big joke! — incorrect.