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Slick Nick, you devil, you

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People who write letters to newspapers complaining about nudity, cursing, and anti-Christmas content in Love Actually (Lobsters in the manger scene?Those heathens!)will die if they see Bad Santa (opens Wednesday, November 26). It will literally kill them. Their heads will explode like popcorn kernels, so be careful who you sit near in the theater. They probably won't even realize they're in for one bumpy sleigh ride when Bad's title pops up on the screen at the same time its protagonist christens an alley behind a bar with his vomit.

            Bad is perfect counterprogramming for the similarly holiday-themed but PG-rated Elf. It's about a suicidal, alcoholic, and incontinent man named Willie T. Stokes (a perfectly cast Billy Bob Thornton) who teams up with a three-foot sidekick (Tony Cox) to pull an annual Christmas Eve robbery of the very same department store that has been employing them, respectively, as Santa and an elf. But the dynamic duo has to suffer through an entire month of dealing with jam-handed kids in order to get the other 11 months off each year.

            Here's a typical scene from Bad: Kid sits on Santa's lap. Santa impatiently says, "What the fuck do you want?" The kid tells him he wants Pokémon. Santa looks confused and drunkenly shouts, "What the fuck is that?" Santa also makes backdoor Christmas deliveries to female shoppers in the dressing room of the store's plus-size department.

            Take your kids to Bad? You might want to punch the filmmakers for having kids in it. But here's the thing: Bad is really good. It offers quality, behind-the-camera talent ranging from producers (the Coen brothers, who came up with the idea for the script) to director Terry Zwigoff (who made the award-winning Crumb and Ghost World). Like those two films, Bad is full of sad, ugly people (inside and out) who remain flawed, despite the slightly uplifting ending, when the closing credits roll. And that makes Bad more real, and gives it more heart and soul than The Grinch and The Cat in the Hat put together.

            You could think of it as a modern take on the Scrooge tale, only with the various Ghosts of Christmas being replaced by a criminal mastermind dwarf, an 8-year-old with a perpetually snotty nose, an alcoholic bartender with a Santa sex fetish, a half-dead sandwich-obsessed grandmother, and a 500-pound prostitute. Not only is there a refreshing lack of product placement for a Christmas film set in a mall, but Bad is also the last time you'll see the late John Ritter on the big screen. Happy holidays!

The Singing Detective (opens Friday, November 28, at the Little) is a film about a guy coming to terms with his past and his problems in a very painful, hostile way. It's also pulpy... and it's a musical. These are things that would not ordinarily go together, and I'm not sure they really bring out the best in each other here. A good potboiler is one thing, but gumshoes who burst into song are something else entirely. The same kind of theory applied to, say, Cop Rock.

            Detective, which is based on a wildly popular six-hour British miniseries penned by the late Dennis Potter, swaps '40s London for Chicago in the '50s in terms of setting, while replacing BAFTA-winner Michael Gambon's Phillip Marlowe with walking punch line Robert Downey Jr. and his appropriately named Dan Dark. The angry Dark, a pulp writer, spends the entire film --- physically, at least --- within the confines of a hospital where he's being treated for a rare skin infection which makes it look like he has second-degree burns from head to toe. Dark refuses to take painkillers (oh, the irony) and, because of this, he can only lay immobile in his bed and let his thoughts get the better of him.

            Because of Dark's state of mind, we're not sure what parts of Detective are real and which exist only in Dark's gloomy head. Complicating matters is a possible third scenario in which Dark is imagining characters from his novels. These figments include a hit-man version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Adrien Brody and Jon Polito), a whorish mother (Carla Gugino), and a regular whore (Carla Gugino again), a happy-ending nurse (Katie Holmes), and a wife (Robin Wright Penn) who might be screwing another guy (Jeremy Northam) while they both try to screw Dark out of the movie rights to one of his novels.

            Sounds pretty nutty, right? And then, every once in a while, the walls roll away and people start belting out period hits like "At the Hop" and "Mr. Sandman" (don't worry --- they're only lip-synching). The song-and-dance numbers are light, even though they're fully rooted in fanciful paranoia and bewildering delusion, unlike Dancer in the Dark or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. As if that weren't enough, Dark makes occasional visits to the hospital's shrink (Mel Gibson, trying way too hard for a Best Supporting Actor nod --- Detective was financed by his Icon Productions) who uses some unorthodox treatment techniques on our boy.

            Slowly, Dark starts getting better, both physically and spiritually (making us wonder if the skin condition wasn't all psychosomatic). But by then I stopped caring about Dark's problems and focused on my watch, which suddenly seemed to be moving counterclockwise. Maybe there were problems hacking Potter's epic story into a 110-minute film, though the thought of Detective running another four hours makes me want to burn down a church. Downey's performance is good, but it gets muddled in its ridiculous surroundings. I will say this for Detective: It made me feel nearly as delusional as Dark was supposed to be. That's got to count for something.

Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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