Dir: Terry Zwigoff. US.2003. 91mins.

With little advancepublicity, Bad Santa breezed intoNorth American theatres last Christmas like a breath of fresh air. Into a genreof films - the Christmas movie - traditionally dominated by sweetness andschmaltz (see The Santa Clause, Elf et al), Terry Zwigoff'sR-rated comedy injected a dose of profanity and irreverence which thrilledadult audiences to the tune of $60m in ticket sales.

Programmed as anout-of-competition official screening at Cannes, Bad Santa now gets itsoff-season international launch and it will be met, no doubt, with the same, ifnot an even greater, measure of delight. Miramax and the independentdistribution companies which bought the film will have a unique Christmas 2004release and a likely Yuletide hit on their hands, not to mention a cult festiveitem on late-night TV for years to come.

In a time when USentertainment is infected by Puritanism and self-styled morality, Bad Santaarrives like a delicious bolt out of the blue, laced with rampant swearwords,shameless sexual references, tasteless situations and a welcome disrespect forpolitical correctness.

At its heart, however, isthe sweet story of a small-minded, bad-tempered, hard-drinking, loose-moraledpetty criminal who ever-so gradually starts to embrace life thanks to thepersistent attention of a fatherless child. Because it means no harm,international distributors will have few problems with censorship boards - orcensorship-prone media - beyond the mandatory adult rating. Critics willembrace the film, and teenagers and twentysomethings will treasure itsoff-colour tone for years to come.

Billy Bob Thornton gives abravura performance in the title role of Willie T Stokes, a department storeSanta who curses at the children on his knee and wets himself in the grottowhen too drunk. Every Christmas Eve, he and his partner Marcus (Cox), a blackmidget who acts as Santa's elf, stage a heist on the store in which they areworking - Willie cracking the safe and Marcus organizing the alarm system andthe getaway.

By the time they reachPhoenix, Stokes is all washed up. Pestered by a prudish store manager (JohnRitter in his last role) and a suspicious store detective (Bernie Mac), the twoset about their double act in the store in the run up to Christmas. But Stokesfinds that his customary contempt for other people is sorely tested by a sexySanta-lover called Sue (Graham) and a fat eight year-old kid (Kelly) who latchon to him and melt his frosty exterior.

Especially well-drawn is therelationship between the oddball kid and Willie which succeeds in touching theheartstrings in a gradual way which puts the sledgehammer sentiment of TheSanta Clause to shame. One night Willie eats all the chocolate behind thedoors of the kid's advent calendar in a drunken stupor. The fact that he feelsremorse and replaces the calendar is a small gesture but, bearing in mind thedepths of Willie's despair, surprisingly moving.

The script by Glenn Ficarraand John Requa is filled with priceless lines. When Sue tells Willie "I'vealways had a thing for Santa Claus: it's like some deep-seated childhoodthing," Willie responds "So's my thing for tits." And when the store manageroverhears him in mid-copulation with a "heavy-set woman" in a cubicle in the bigand tall dressing room, he hears Willie exclaim "You ain't going to shit rightfor a week."

Prod cos: Triptych Pictures, Dimension Films
US dist:
Dimension Films
Int'l sales:
Exec prods:
Joel Coen & EthanCoen, Harvey Weinstein & Brad Weston
John Cameron, Sarah Aubrey& Bob Weinstein
Glenn Ficarra & JohnRequa
Jamie Anderson
Prod des:
Sharon Seymour
Robert Hoffman
David Kitay
Main cast:
Billy Bob Thornton,Tony Cox, Lauren Graham, Brett Kelly, Bernie Mac, John Ritter, Cloris Leachman,Ethan Phillips