The culture wars have moved on from the Ten Commandments to Santa Claus. Disney is reported to be upset at the depiction of Father Christmas in this film, which is being released by the studioís loose-cannon "indie" affiliate Miramax. And perhaps for good reason: what Harvey Keitel did for cops in Bad Lieutenant Billy Bob Thornton does for Kris Kringle in Bad Santa. Thorntonís Willie is a department-store Santa who smokes, drinks, swears, occasionally pisses himself, and chases after women with big bottoms. You might piss yourself too before the film is over; itís a hilarious and exhilarating indulgence in the spirit of subversiveness and good will.
Willie is not only a pig, heís also a crook. He and Marcus (Tony Cox), a three-foot-tall African-American dwarf (Bad Santa is an equal-opportunity offender), play a Santa/Elf team who take on a different shopping mall every holiday season. After enduring the line of snotty-nosed kids asking for Barbies and bikes, they slip in after hours, and Willie, a shaky but expert box man, cracks the safe. Itís great set-up, though Willie grows more bitter and erratic every year. Then the kid shows up, as he always does in this kind of movie. But eight-year-old Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) isnít your typical moppet ó heís more of a Charles Addams character via Federico Fellini, a taunted rich kid living in a big house alone with his ga-ga granny. Heís utter innocence wrapped in a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man body who takes all of Willieís abuse, even lets him rob the house, and still believes.
Redemption is inevitable, but itís tolerable because the amoral Willie resists it so endearingly. The reformed bad Santa is a cliché going back at least to Ebenezer Scrooge. In this version, director Terry Zwigoff takes the alienation he explored morosely in Ghost World and turns it into uproarious id. That zest is enough to overcome the cynical touch of the Coen Brothers, who produced and had a hand in the screenplay. So Disney should lighten up and learn that sometimes a film can be naughty and nice. (93 minutes) At the Boston Common, the Fenway, the Fresh Pond, and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.