Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff’s hilariously bleak, laugh-out-loud masterpiece is the dark, satanic twin of perennial Yuletide crowd-pleasers like It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle On 34th Street.
Billy Bob Thornton stars as foul-mouthed, hard-drinking safe-cracker Willie Soak, who just about manages to keep his liver together by posing as a professional Santa and knocking over US department stores every Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, Soak’s chronic self-destruction is reaching an all-time high and a wily store detective (Mac) is on to Willie and his pugnacious dwarf sidekick Marcus (Cox). Add to this an against-the-odds friendship with the strangest school kid in Phoenix (Brett Kelly) plus a sexy barmaid with a Santa fetish (Graham) and you have a yuletide movie like no other.
It’s an insanely funny, feverishly foul-mouthed comedy driven by Zwigoff’s understated, wholly unsentimental direction. For a former documentarian (Crumb, Louie Bluie), Zwigoff has swiftly established himself as a great comic film-maker with impeccably unsympathetic instincts.
He’s also got a great feel for casting. Ten-year-old Brett Kelly is wonderfully spooky as the blank-faced junior lost soul who befriends Willie, while Me, Myself & Irene’s Tony Cox is a 3ft-tall speed-cursing revelation as Willie’s increasingly frustrated partner-in-crime. Lauren Graham, Bernie Mac and the late, lamented John Ritter (as an easily shocked store manager) are all on great form, but this movie belongs to Billy Bob Thornton from beginning to end. If Bad Santa were a seasonal flick that hadn’t outraged Middle America with 147 increasingly inventive uses of the word “fuck”, Thornton would have an Oscar on his mantelpiece right now. As it is, he’s going to have to content himself with delivering the finest performance of his varied career. Willie Soak is a fearless comic creation?a worthless, self-hating loser whose actions, no matter how extreme and anti-social, somehow remain charming (as opposed to disgusting). Bad Santa is a towering achievement: a dark, profane comedy about everything that’s both right and wrong with the season of goodwill. Essential, dark-hearted Yuletide viewing for misanthropes everywhere.