Of the many truths scattered throughout the Half Man Half Biscuit back catalogue, perhaps the truest would be the title of their millennial festive anthem "It's Clichéd to be Cynical at Christmas". That said, if the Hollywood studios are going to release Yuletide-themed movies this early in November, far better Bad Santa, a clever, snarky comedy from Crumb and Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff, than the saccharine candyfloss of last year's Elf. The timing of Bad Santa's UK release also ensures it benefits from the aftershock of an American election in which the Christian right's insistence that some things are sacred extended to voting back in an administration that had spent much of the past four years lying to, cheating, and stealing from the world. Whatever nasty taste Tuesday night's result left in the mouth can be comprehensively spat out here, in a bilious, moral majority-baiting satire that more often than not hits you like a movie equivalent of hair-of-the-dog.
Its hero Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is an unshaven, self-loathing drunk and incorrigible tea leaf who each year takes a menial gig as Santa in a different shopping mall in order to spend extensive time casing the joint. Having claimed the perks of the job - being rude to small children, screwing their moms in the changing rooms - Willie and his elf sidekick Marcus (Tony Cox) lock themselves in on Christmas Eve and make off with whatever cash they can get their grubby hands on. This holiday season, however, is somewhat different: not just because our Santa has reached an absolute nadir of suicidal despair, but since Willie has also attracted the attentions of a portly, put-upon child (Brett Kelly), a relationship that - beneath Zwigoff's gaze - keeps threatening to tip over into Hallmark-movie sentiment without ever quite doing so; its signature moment comes when Willie uses the contents of a whisky bottle to sterilise a cut in the kid's hand, pouring it on neat before taking a swig for himself.
Around Ghost World's strip malls, Zwigoff and his collaborators found literally rich territory for satire. Offered a markedly bigger budget here, he gets shopping malls to make merry and mischief within. The result feels as though the filmmaker had asked his old friend Robert Crumb to "enhance" a festive Norman Rockwell tableau: each scabrous, scatological scene craps on conventional family values while, in its own way, thumbing its nose at the present situation - better a bad Santa than a godly President. You'd think the compulsion to flick fag ash rather than fake snow over everything would lead to a certain greying of vision, a monotonous misanthropy, but Zwigoff strings up performances like fairy lights. Cox is a busy, hectoring Sancho Panza; John Ritter a fey liberal whose political correctness keeps getting the better of him; Lauren Graham a sweet, sexy barmaid with a Santa fetish. Even the cameos, a Ghost World strength, are valuable, taking in Ajay Naidu as a character with the once-in-a-lifetime billing of "Hindustani troublemaker". Nothing, however, detracts from the career-defining platform the film provides for Thornton, itching, scratching and grouching his way through proceedings as this year's most recognisably human American hero.
Bad Santa is available on DVD through Sony; a sequel, Bad Santa 2, opens this Friday.