This is a rancid lump of coal in the toe of the Christmas stocking of the holiday movie season. Perhaps inspired by the unexpected success of last year’s anti-feel-good Bad Santa, this has that movie’s star, Billy Bob Thornton, as a pornographer named Vic who conspires with Charlie (John Cusack), a mob lawyer, to steal $2 million from mob boss Bill Gerard (Randy Quaid) on Christmas Eve. Now the trick is getting out of town without killing themselves on the icy roads or killing each other out of suspicion, frustration, or greed. There is also a strip joint manager named Renata (Gladiator’s Connie Nielson), lit like a 1940’s film noir femme fatale, and a subplot about an incriminating photo of a local politician engaged in some hanky panky with a bored-looking stripper, as well as Charlie’s perpetually drunk friend (Oliver Platt).
Not exactly Tiny Tim saying “God bless us everyone” or Santa wishing “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night,” is it?
There’s nasty-fun and there’s nasty-nasty, and then there’s nasty-just-plain-depressing, and this ugly mess straddles the second two categories. We may all need some relief from the relentless cheeriness of the holiday season, and there is some cathartic liberation in seeing characters who are so unabashedly unconstrained by societal norms. Because there are some understated wisecracks and Christmas carol classics (including the one from Alvin and the Chipmunks) on the soundtrack, this is supposed to be clever and meta and ironic. But it isn’t.
It is dumb and micro and moronic. Thornton, Cusack, Nielson, and Platt do their best and there are some darkly comic moments, but ultimately it is as stale and unappetizing as last year’s fruitcake.
Parents should know that this is a movie that bases its humor on its vile soullessness, which is intended to be wickedly charming. This means that the movie’s “good guys” and its bad guys are crooks and killers. Everyone uses very strong, crude, and nasty language and everyone engages in very strong, crude, and nasty behavior. Characters smoke and drink, get drunk, drink and drive, and mix alcohol and pills. They lie, cheat, steal, torture, and kill each other.
Families who see this movie should talk about whether it is all right to steal from crooks. If you become a crook, does that make you less willing to trust others? If you become a crook, does that make it harder to find trustworthy people to work with? They might also like to talk about how this story echoes some of the themes portrayed less darkly in the books and films by the same author, Empire Falls (which echoes the “Witchita Falls” theme of this movie) and Nobody’s Fool.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy three other crooks-at-Christmas movies, The Ref, the original We’re No Angels (remade with Robert DeNiro and Sean Penn in 1989), and Trapped in Paradise.