Alcoholic safe-breaker Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) uses his cover as a department store Santa to rob the very same stores. But his living is thrown into jeopardy by a corrupt shop detective (Mac) and a dimwitted small boy (Kelly).
Developed from an original idea from the Coen brothers, Bad Santa is a seasonal confection of vomit, piss, crime, snot, suicide, alcoholism and vigorous anal sex.
Perfect counter-programming, then, against the saccharine bilge usually secreted by studios at Christmas and a positive tonic for those of us who see this time of year as a toxic chore rather than a period imbued with "Yuletide enchantment". So why it's out on Bonfire Night will remain one of cinema's great mysteries!
Essentially, this is a one-joke movie: Santa is not an avuncular, present-delivering grandfather figure, but a dyspeptic misanthrope who we first meet vomiting against an alley wall, and who pursues his real calling as a safe-breaker aided by an only slightly less angry dwarf (brilliantly played by Tony Cox, who's adorned with a Caucasian pair of elf-ears; a sly comment, presumably, on the institutional racism rampant at the North Pole). But the joke is a good one and, more importantly, is delivered by Billy Bob Thornton, one of modern cinema's natural comic actors, while the often literally scatological dialogue is inventive and varied enough to help. On one occasion, for example, Santa listens to a child's Christmas wish before advising him, "Why don't you shit in one hand and wish in the other, see which fills up first?"
Surprisingly, there's something reminiscent of the Ealing comedies about Bad Santa. Like the best Ealings, its tale of cynical criminality terminates a (sort of) moral point. And it's here that Zwigoff pulls of a minor miracle - Santa's growing relationship with The Kid, a snot-faced tweenie with weight issues and limited intelligence, should be the moment that the movie caves in to the truly vulgar sentimentality against which it apparently stood. Instead, Bad Santa's unorthodox sweetness creeps up on you unannounced.
It wafts you out of the cinema grinning not only at lines such as, "You're not going to shit right for a week," delivered by Father Christmas during a particularly exhausting bout of bottom sex with a lady in a changing room, but because Zwigoff has actually managed to slip you a Mickey of that Christmas spirit while you weren't looking. Bastard.
Topping off a year of above-average American comedies - Dodgeball and Anchorman being the obvious highlights - Bad Santa is a delightfully obscene alternative to the usual Christmas tosh.
Reviewed by Adam Smith