Many actors will tell you in order of preference working continuously tops the list, closely followed by portraying quirky, obsessed characters. Billy Bob Thornton knows how to pick ’em: Sling Blade, Monster’s Ball, Bandits and Intolerable Cruelty serve up a short stack of his vivid character choices. The quirkiest may be his drunken, foul-mouthed and lascivious Willie in Bad Santa. That film like few others torpedoes your notions about Christmas. Willie is a misanthrope without peer. Bad Santa delights viewers who prefer their comedies crude and subversive, not just funny. Now, Billy Bob steps up in a new grouch comedy, Mr. Woodcock. It raises an intriguing Smackdown: Who is the funnier sourpuss — Mr. Woodcock or Bad Santa?
Mr. Woodcock gives us John Farley (Seann William Scott) on tour promoting the self-help book he wrote to survive his traumatized youth. John ignores the advice of his alcoholic publicist (Amy Poehler) and accepts an offer to visit his hometown in Nebraska. Officials want to bestow the Corn Cob Key on Farley, and it gives him a chance to visit his mom, Beverly (Susan Sarandon). Of course, this won’t be a smooth trip for John: Mom is dating the local Phys Ed teacher — his tormentor, Jasper Woodcock (Billy Bob Thornton). Woodcock is a real peach: The back story shows us the sadistic glee he takes in making the kids run laps, blasting one of them with a basketball and making young Farley change into gym clothes in public. Age hasn’t mellowed Woodcock: He is unfailingly rude to old folks and even rolls one off a wheel chair into the swimming pool. He treats Beverly nicely and they plan to get married. This is too much for Farley to handle, and the movie — written by Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert — centers on his plot to derail the wedding with a strong dose of payback tossed in.
The Defending Champion
Bad Santa lets you know within a minute Willie doesn’t like his life: out of prison, twice divorced, alcoholic, a physical wreck. He doesn’t like you, either. Willie hooks up with Marcus (Tony Cox) for the only “work” he performs. They dress up as Santa and Elf during the Christmas season to steal from the department stores that hire them. They succeed until their scam takes them to Phoenix. That’s where the Christmas Criminals meet a boy named Thurman (Brett Kelly), Sue the bartender (Lauren Graham) and store detective Gin (Bernie Mac). The boy wants a Christmas present, Sue wants Santa and Gin wants the loot. These are the dramatic complications writers Glen Ficarra and John Requa place in the path of Willie’s getaway.
This material is an acquired taste, but strong supporting casts improve both movies. Mr. Woodcock rolls a long distance in the company of Academy Award winner and five-time nominee Susan Sarandon. She displays a light comic touch and common sense dignity as John Farley’s widowed mother. You almost wince as her character becomes the punch line in a recurring joke in the cafe. Seann William Scott never lets John Farley lose his annoying cheeriness even as his plans for revenge go sideways. Amy Poehler and Bill Macy have small screen time but use it well.
Billy Bob Thornton is the link between the films and he’s funny in both. Whether it’s Jasper Woodcock or Willie you’re watching a character of staggering cynicism and self-absorption. He plays this well. They’re not the same character, but their effect on others is similar: They take no prisoners and they’re ugly about it. Jasper remains consistent, unyielding, with a sneer that would crack marble; Thurman the kid and a beautiful bartender manage to crack Willie’s hateful veneer and change him a little.
Bad Santa features effective turns from Tony Cox as Willie’s crime partner; Brett Kelly is compelling and slightly creepy as that needy kid, Thurman. Together with Lauren Graham they lend a note of humanity and occasional optimism. Bernie Mac and John Ritter nicely flavor the mix.
Do you sense a stronger hand in this showdown of monsters? You should.
And the winner…
Solid counter punching wins it for the newcomer. Both movies are sharply written, hilarious in spots and foul-mouthed. Bad Santa shows sharper film making but the misanthrope goes a little soft. Dramatically speaking, such a horrible person doesn’t wangle a happy ending for an unhappy kid or a woman with a thing for Santa. By contrast, Mr. Woodcock doesn’t let up. Jasper never changes, but John Farley’s opinion of Woodcock does. It’s cleverly handled as Farley’s scheme to unmask Jasper unravels. It’s a comedic journey that changes your opinion, too. The ending seems a little tortured which may not be surprising for a production that underwent weeks of last minute reshoots. Ultimately, one film leaves the deeper cynical bite marks — our new winner, “Mr. Woodcock.”