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In his first two features, the documentary Crumb and the comic-book adaptation Ghost World, director Terry Zwigoff brought to bear a special brand of misanthropy: His protagonists don’t just hate the world—they invest virtually all of their energy in mocking it. With Bad Santa, Zwigoff has made a shift to a more classical form of comedy: The misanthropy is still there in spades, but the caustic, self-aware mockery has been put aside in favor of good ol’ balls-out profanity.

As the opening titles pop on screen, a solitary figure slumps over in a dark, grimy alley. While the camera lingers over the wretched, nearly lifeless body, Billy Bob Thornton’s voice-over solemnly intones that “nothing has ever sucked more ass than this.” Then he vomits sonorously.

Thornton’s Willie T. Stokes isn’t simply a vomiting Santa Claus; he’s a self-declared “eating, drinking, shitting, fucking Santy Claus.” And Bad Santa is the kind of movie in which we don’t have to take his word for it: When a fetishist bartender (Gilmore Girls’ Lauren Graham) demands that he “prove it,” they have sex in his car while she yells, “Fuck me, Santa!”

The ne’er-do-well Willie is a practitioner of “the three B’s”—those would be boozing, bullshitting, and buttfucking—but he excels most of all at the boozing. For years, the lush has conned his way through the Yuletide with the help of his safecracking skills, a raggedy red suit, and his dwarf-cum-elf sidekick, Marcus (Tony Cox). Posing as a department-store Santa and then ripping the place off on Christmas Eve has its challenges, but his biggest challenge is sobriety, and after he falls off the wagon in Miami (he sits on a bench drinking, eating corn dogs, and watching beach volleyball), he agrees to head up to Phoenix to hook up with Marcus for one more score.

Once the scene shifts to Arizona, the movie focuses on Willie’s relationship with Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), a chubby, snot-faced moppet who looks like a cross between a Garbage Pail Kid and a Diane Arbus photo. After spotting him at the mall, Thurman tails Willie and won’t let go. The 8-year-old displays a joyous indomitability—no matter how much Santa spews at him or pisses himself, he stares blissfully and asks where Willie keeps his reindeer or if he wants any sandwiches.

Screenwriters John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who previously collaborated on Cats and Dogs, don’t exactly show a flair for dialogue. But though it’s true that curse words are often a crutch for the unfunny, they can be a damn funny crutch, especially when spit out by a virtuoso blue-streaker like Thornton. It’s hard not to laugh when Willie curses out the tykes in his lap, refers to his penis as a “fuck stick,” and yells, “What do you think, I’m some kind of pervert or something?” when the mall manager asks if he likes children.

While John Ritter (in his last film role) evinces his usual charms as the easily cowed, soft-spoken manager, Bernie Mac peddles his typical schtick to no good effect as the mall security chief, Gin Slagel. The mall can’t fire Willie because he doesn’t curse around the children, so Gin is forced to investigate. The finer points of the ensuing procedural—as well as Mac’s lazy singsong patter—are the movie’s major soft spots. There’s also the matter of Marcus’ Asian stereotype of a wife, who says virtually nothing the entire movie, and whose only personality trait is a lust for shoes and loofahs.

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Still, Thornton’s Santa creates an indelible impression. Though his recent filmography is testament to his versatility as a performer—in Sling Blade, he flourished in a showy actor’s role, whereas in The Man Who Wasn’t There, he convincingly melted into the background—Thornton has never played funny well until this year. With his turn as a dupe oilman in Intolerable Cruelty and this more broadly physical role in Bad Santa, Thornton has finally proved that he’s a more-than-able comedian.

More surprisingly, he’s proved that he’s also a more-than-capable Zwigoff hero. Even when he adds a bit of Christmasy redemption at the film’s conclusion, Willie doesn’t lose a bit of his misanthropic glint: “I beat the shit out of some kids today,” he says. “It was for a purpose—it made me feel good about myself.”

Theoretically, it’s a great idea for a family-entertainment product to work on two levels. The Simpsons, for one, manages to speak to several audiences without talking down to any of them: There are pop-cultural references for the zeitgeist-savvy, and there’s Homer getting hit on the head with a mallet for the kiddies—and the old folks. The Cat in the Hat, by contrast, calls to mind that maxim about how you can’t please all of the people all of the time—although it’s hard to imagine that everyone on the planet wouldn’t get behind smashing Mike Myers’ giant cat in the head with a mallet. Or a bag of doorknobs. Or maybe a Truffula board with a nail in it…

The Cat in the Hat calls to mind that particular brand of kiddie-film schtickery inaugurated by the Robin Williams-voiced big blue genie in Aladdin. While listening to Myers riff on infomercials (they include pitchmen who wear sweaters), lawyers (they wear suits and glasses), and lactose intolerance (it “gums up the works”), it’s all too easy to imagine that character nestled in the bowels of the giant feline’s gadget-filled hat, feeding the actor his lines. To rub in the painful unfunniness, Myers voices the gags in a resolutely annoying tone, kind of a cross between Linda Richman, the Scottish dad from So I Married an Axe Murderer, and Harvey Fierstein. For punctuation, he yells out “Oh, yeah!” like the eminently more likable Kool-Aid Man.

The milquetoast joshing, as conjured by the film’s jury-rigged, three-headed scriptwriting team of Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer, clearly serves a purpose, if not a joyous one: The book’s lack of narrative—cat shows up, makes mess, goes away—leaves an almost-bare framework that has to be filled in somehow. It’s hard to believe, though, that any sensible producer (Grinch veteran Brian Grazer) or director (TV man Bo Welch) would want to pad a Seussian story with gag-writing rather than investing in the creation of a visual feast—and that goes double when the director’s bona fides come from his production design on Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands (and, admittedly, Wild Wild West).

Dr. Seuss’ original book is chock-full of vibrant, page-defying pictures that zig and zag up, down, and around. But the film’s failure is one that was never suffered by Seuss: a lack of imagination. Rather than make an effort to create a memorable, original cinematic world, the filmmakers take the design for granted—and directly from the book. Everything looks well-constructed, precisely rendered, and exactly as you’d expect. The suburban landscape, populated by lime-green cars and pastel-hued wardrobes, is bright, flat, and cartoony. Everything has sharp corners and is in apple-pie order.

The film’s spotless action fits right in with its clean look. In a story whose entire premise is wanton destruction, the mess never really gets out of hand. When Thing One and Thing Two (Taylor Rice and Brittany Oakes), who look like blue-haired Howdy Doodys, emerge from the cat’s crate of destruction, they wreak havoc by shaking purple stains onto the curtains—the nightmare, perhaps, of fiendishly Lysol-spraying neat freaks, but of few others.

Though a smart, risk-taking director could have conjured a dark, mesmerizing film out of the cat’s tomfoolery, in the end, The Cat in the Hat is far more annoying than disappointing. Sharing the screen with Myers are the ever-too-cute, ever-too-precocious Dakota Fanning and the not-too-cute, not-much-of-anything Spencer Breslin. And then there’s the bizarre scene featuring Cat-in-the-Hat-hat-wearing ravers, and, incredibly, Paris Hilton. The only exceptions to the drudgery are Kelly Preston, as the cleanliness-loving mom, who is way too pneumatically cleavaged for a kiddie movie, and Alec Baldwin, who—well, mostly because he gets covered with goo. CP