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It's a Wonderful Life, My Ass!
by Lucius Shepard
December 8, 2003

There once was a movie called Shakes the Clown, a fantasy set in an alternate universe in which clowns are a distinct subculture with a strict hierarchy wherein mimes are the weakest, the least respected, and rodeo clowns are the top dogs. The protagonist, a party clown named Shakes (Bobcat Goldthwait), is a reprehensible character, a self-loathing alcoholic—dysfunctional in every regard—who staggers and mumbles his way through birthday-party performances, offending children and parents alike. This point is established by the opening of the picture—Shakes lies on the floor in a drunken stupor, while a little boy urinates on his head. It's not a very good movie; in fact, it's an awful movie. But it contains a few howlingly funny scenes that have stayed with me over the years.

Though Bad Santa, Terry Zwigoff's (Crumb, Ghost World) new feature, is a better picture than Shakes, it's still not a very good movie and it shares far more than a lack of quality with Goldthwait�s clown opus. For one thing, it opens with a brief scene in which Willie T. Soke (a terminally grizzled Billy Bob Thornton), dressed in a Santa suit, vomits in an alley behind a bar. Willie is even more reprehensible and full of self-loathing than was Shakes. Along with his accomplice, a little person named Marcus (Tony Cox of Me, Myself, and Irene) he earns his living by robbing a major department store once in a year. The two hire in as Santa and elf respectively, case the joint, and on Christmas Eve, Willie cracks the safe while Marcus helps himself to the merchandise. The store of the moment is located in a Phoenix shopping mall and managed by Bob Chipeska (John Ritter in a thankless final film role), its security provided by Gin (Bernie Mac), whose chief character attributes appear to be chain-smoking and a taste for pedicures.

Over the years, Willie's self-loathing has driven him deeper and deeper into alcoholism and he is now barely able to carry out his Santa duties. As he drunkenly solicits the children�s' gift wishes, he offers profane commentary on their choices (the movie contains more F-bombs than any film in my memory) and treats them as meanly as he treats nearly everyone in his life, bumping them off his knee and ridiculing them. Along the way he sodomizes a plus-size woman in one of the store's dressing rooms, engages in further anal sex with a 400-pound hooker, attempts suicide by carbon monoxide asphyxiation, and strikes up an actual relationship with a barmaid, Sue (Lauren Graham), who is afflicted with a Santa fetish. He also stumbles into a relationship with Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), an obese, none-too-bright child who is cared for by his senile grandmother while his father, a white-collar criminal of uncertain stamp, is away in prison. Thurman is so clueless that after the neighborhood bullies give him a wedgie, rather than adjusting his clothing, he walks down to the department store with the waistband of his underwear up around his chest in order to ask Willie to bring him a purple stuffed elephant for Christmas—he appears to believe that Willie is actually Santa. Naturally Willie avails himself of the situation, moving in with the kid, appropriating the dad's Mercedes and disporting himself in the Jacuzzi with Sue. He is, as he states, "living proof that there is no Santa Claus."

It's long been a feeling among some, myself included, that a dour, sardonic movie was needed to counteract the sappy Christmas films that dominate the season, and there is no doubt that Bad Santa will endear itself on many levels to anyone given to this disposition. It's patently a one-joke film, but that joke is pretty damn funny and a number of the scenes are hilarious, notably Billy Bob topping off Sue in his car while wearing his Santa hat, Willie and Marcus trying to teach Thurman to box so as to fend off bullies, and a totally inebriated Willie, under the horrorstruck gaze of assorted mommies and kiddies, destroying a store display of large papier-m�ch� animals that seem to him an element of his toxic delirium. Scrooge's pronouncement of "Bah, humbug!" pales by comparison to Willie's cynicism, and yet Bad Santa, despite its incessant profanity and crudity, its literal ignoring of the traditional Christmas spirit throughout most of its running time, is essentially a Scrooge-like tale and completely loses whatever edge it possesses by becoming at the end the very sort of picture it's attempting to lampoon. I admit that I laughed and laughed loudly during the movie, but afterward I was hard pressed to recall precisely why I had laughed, chiefly because it all seemed to come to nothing.

I have difficulty understanding why Zwigoff, after making two excellent films, chose this as his next project. It's unlikely that Bad Santa will make much impact on the marketplace—though perhaps it will find the lion�s share of its audience as a cult DVD item—and the script, though salted throughout with outrageous bits, proves ultimately clunky and limiting as to what any director could have done with it. Most of the characters are poorly defined, and John Ritter is absolutely wasted. The always credible Billy Bob Thornton does his best with the material, giving us a glimpse into Willie's loser soul, into the past that shaped his degraded present, and perhaps this is the pivot upon which Zwigoff could have turned the script to his advantage. Perhaps he should have made it even darker and used some film time to explore Willie's nature further, to give us a deeper understanding of his desperation—this might have provided his final redemptive act with a framework that would have caused it to seem truer. As things stand, that act comes across as facile, mere evidence of bad writing, and the movie collapses from the dissonance of its contrary impulses.

Another film that strikes a note contrary to the season's spirit, albeit in a different way, in the sense of being a chunk of coal placed by Hollywood in the national stocking, is Timeline, based on a recent Michael Crichton experiment in post-literature. We must have been a naughty nation, indeed, to warrant such a gift. Not that Timelinedoesn't offer a plethora of belly laughs—it's just that they are almost none of them intentional. Richard Donner, whose hyperkinetic style of direction gave the Lethal Weapon series its panache and who once directed a much better medieval movie, Ladyhawke, imbues Crichton's time-travel story with all the sluggish vacancy of an episode of Sliders. And the cast . . . My God. It seems as if the casting directors must have drawn names out of a hat. Paul Walker (The Fast and the Furious) is the only actor I know of who appears to have chosen Keanu Reeves for a role model. Every line he delivers carries an implied "Whoa!" or "Dude!" Surrounding him with decent actors such as Frances O'Connor (Mansfield Park) and David Thewliss (Naked) effects no appreciable enhancement of his skills, but rather drags those others down to his level. The romantic pairing of O'Connor and Walker makes no sense, cinematic or otherwise. Think Matthew McConaughey and Meryl Streep . . . like that.

Then there's the plot.

A group of archaeologists led by Professor Edward Johnston (Billy Connolly) is excavating a French castle. Chris (Walker), Johnston's son, who looks to have nothing in common—neither accent, shape of head, nor IQ—with his Scots father other than the fact that they are both bipedal, arrives in France to hang out with Kate (O'Connor), a young archaeologist with whom he once had a thing. Kate, however, claims to gotten over him and Chris moons around, practicing his petulant look. The professor flies back to New Mexico to consult with Richard Doniger (Thewliss), the evil Bill-Gatesish billionaire who is funding the dig. When the professor fails to return, Chris senses a disturbance in the Force. Something's amiss, dude! Before long he, Kate, and various others of the archaeological team are off to New Mexico to learn what has happened—which is, the old professor has gotten himself stranded in medieval France, the year 1358 to be exact, and is being held hostage in the very castle they have been excavating. Turns out that Doniger and his partner have developed a device that enables the instantaneous transmission of freight, and the device has opened a wormhole that leads (wouldn't ya know?) right to that same darned castle.

Urged on by Doniger, surfer-lad Chris and his science buddies scooby-doo off into the past, accompanied by a passel of military types (who are, natch, the first to be wiped out). They are told they have six hours to find the professor—stay longer and the Minnow will be lost. Doniger informs them that their molecular structure will be changed by time travel—when they return, their component parts may not quite match up—but nothing ever comes of this apparent plot point. He provides them with "markers," medallions that will allow them to be whisked back to the 21st Century, a technology whose efficacy is, natch, neutered when one of the military types returns to the present carrying a live hand grenade and blows up the teleportation device. Thus stranded in a strangely sanitized version of the middle ages (serfs with sound teeth and neatly kept hovels, etc.), and dressed in grotesquely fraudulent medieval garb, the Buffy gang scurries about in the midst of a fierce battle (the Battle of Castlegard, for those who care), a slaughter replete with menacing knights, flights of arrows, buckets of gore, et al. In the midst of death, romance blooms for Chris and Kate, and for another of their party and an aristocratic Frenchwoman, who—it turns out—is central to the conflict. Soon the whole thing begins to feel as if a bunch of callow twenty-something idiots, after being turned down for Survivor, have been dumped onto a fifth-rate reality show called Timeline. Throughout, Chris wears an expression that lands midway between bewildered and perturbed, giving rise to the impression that he's a little lost without his hair gel.

And then there's the dialogue, chockfull of Yeahs! and All Rights! and C'mon, let's goes!

How bad is it?

It makes Michael Crichton's print dialogue seem trenchant and witty by contrast, that's how bad.

"Do we look like quantum-wormhole specialists?"

One can envision future midnight-showing audiences bellowing some ritual response to this patently unanswerable question.

One hundred sixteen minutes of this, of special effects that rival those of the original Battlestar Galactica, of a secondary plot that involves a young physicist who remains in the present to attempt repairs on the teleportation device and spends a good deal of time asking Doniger questions that have been made rhetorical by previous plot revelations: "So what you're saying, they would be stuck there forever once their markers expire?" It causes you to wonder how come Hollywood continues to churn out one Crichtonesque dud after another. It's been a long while since Jurassic Park plundered the box office. In the ensuing years, losers like Congo, Sphere, and The Thirteenth Warrior should have made it clear to the bean counters that the Crichton name has lost that special magic.

If you're the sort, as am I, who finds that laughing at comically bad movies now and then provides a kind of spiritual affirmation, Timeline will give you more bang for your buck than any big-budget flopperoo since Costner's perennial favorite The Postman. I guess that's a recommendation. But if history's your thing, truth be told, you'd get a more authentic Middle Ages buzz by paying a visit to one of those restaurants where college girls dress up as serving wenches, and by knocking back a few tankards of Bud Light and watching some clumsy hirelings dressed as knights duel with wooden swords.