BAD SANTA Bad Santa may be rude, disgusting and offensive, but I laughed plenty of times, which is something I can't say I did during those sucky Santa Clause flicks. A perfectly cast Billy Bob Thornton stars as a lifelong loser who dons the red suit annually to play a department store Santa, simply so he can rob the mall vaults with ease. But this year's scheme threatens to become more complicated than usual, thanks to the unexpected presence of a pudgy little boy (Brett Kelly) who follows him around like a pet. A sentimental moment or two enters the picture late in the game (and they're surprisingly effective), but for the most part, this movie carries the power of its non-PC implications right through to the very end. Rarely letting up on the raunch and ridicule, it's enough to make Will Ferrell's Elf blush.
THE CAT IN THE HAT Scouring the original Dr. Seuss text, I simply could not find the moment when the title feline, standing next to a garden tool, yells, "You dirty ho!" then proceeds to insist he's only kidding while flicking his tongue in a lascivious manner. Dramatic license? More like rampant necrophilia. In short, this is a catastrophe of the first degree, anchored (and sunk) by Mike Myers' unctuous performance as the Cat. Myers' schtick is all one-note self-adulation, a feeble channeling of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion by way of Jerry Lewis, Paul Lynde and Myers' own Austin Powers. But he isn't the only problem: Needless subplots constantly interfere, while all the cute characters from the original story are simply creepy on film. In fact, there isn't much in this crass movie that doesn't inspire feelings of revulsion.
ELF While it could stand being a little more naughty and a little less nice, Elf isn't a pre-fabricated piece of synthetic Christmas cheer like The Santa Clause or Gov. Schwarzenegger's disastrous Jingle All the Way. While remaining mindful of the season-friendly PG rating, director Jon Favreau and scripter David Berenbaum manage to add a few splashes of Tabasco sauce to the expected puddles of syrup, thereby elevating this fable about a human (Will Ferrell) who, after being raised as an elf at the North Pole, heads to New York. Overcoming a sluggish beginning, both the picture and Ferrell's broad turn become easier to take once this gets rolling, with some inventive touches (love those Etch-A-Sketch renditions!) and a game cast helping matters along. 1/2
GOTHIKA Guilty by reason of stupidity, this limp thriller's absurdity begins with its title, a cutesy variation on "Gothic." Yet although the press material pleads its case that this drivel has its origins in both the same-named French architecture of the 12th century and the English literature of the 1700s, this movie ultimately feels about as Gothic as Finding Nemo. The premise certainly holds promise, with Halle Berry cast as a criminal psychologist who's suspected of murder and finds herself locked up in her own looney bin. Is she really crazy, or is she the victim of supernatural shenanigans? Almost everything in this doltish drama needs to be accepted with a shrug, from the cheap chiller elements to the idiocy of its characters. 1/2
THE HAUNTED MANSION Eddie Murphy, in neutered, family man mode, tries to keep things jumping with his caffeinated turn as a New Orleans realtor who, with family in tow, spends the night in a ghost-infested manor. It's hard to believe this sort of trifle would be overplotted, but the script by Davis Berenbaum (Elf) gets so weighed down in the intricacies of its pedestrian storyline (centering on a doomed love affair from the past) that there's very little time left for pure visceral thrills. Yet even here, the movie's a bust, as director Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little) and six-time Oscar-winning effects wizard Rick Baker (finally running out of ideas) manage to make even such surefire audience grabbers as a zombie attack exceedingly dull. 1/2
THE HUMAN STAIN This adaptation of Philip Roth's novel is an affecting picture in its own right, almost subdued in the manner in which it tackles its myriad issues of race, loss, identity, and the lengths to which one man will reinvent himself to succeed in America. It traces the downward spiral of a college professor (Anthony Hopkins) after an innocent classroom comment is misinterpreted as a racial slur. Suddenly without a career or a family, he passes the days alternating between dwelling on secrets buried in his past and engaging in a tentative relationship with a complex woman (Nicole Kidman) who paints herself as the ultimate in trailer park trash. Hopkins hasn't been this interesting in years, while Kidman's amazing portrayal is merely the latest in her current winning streak.