I am all for anything that represents Christmas as the hellish festival of torment that it is, but there’s a line at which misanthropy stops being loveable shtick and starts meaning you don’t get invited to parties anymore. Bad Santa 2 doesn’t necessarily cross that line, but it is way too preoccupied with trying to.
Anti-heroes work better in TV than in film, I think: there’s more time to let you grow to root for and even like them. In film you have to set them up, show them being a total bastard, then set them on a path to some sort of redemption within a couple of hours. Bad Santa 2, to its credit, is brave enough not to shoot for actual redemption, instead aiming for a qualified brand of it that doesn’t betray the character. But its approach is to wind up Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie Soke and watch him go, without letting you feel much for him.
Perhaps that’s the point. Willie’s nihilist take on the world is the film’s own. In some ways this is refreshing: he gets dragged along to an AA meeting, dismisses it, and makes the case to Christina Hendricks’s Diane that the promiscuous period she’d been through before she got sober was a state of freedom she now denies herself, rather than a symptom of alcoholism. Of course, he’s only saying it because he’s trying to get her into the back seat of the car, but how it plays out makes the film’s stance on his own drinking clear: it’s not something Willie needs to fix in order to become a better person. We aren’t dealing with a traditional man-versus-himself arc here, and it’s a welcome break from film comedy’s norm.
This arc takes in all the beats you’d expect: another robbery scheme with Tony Cox’s Marcus in tow, and this time Kathy Bates as Willie’s mother. This time the target is a charity, and somehow any complaints you might have about Willie’s morality for going along with the plan – which should, by rights, make you lose all sympathy for him – are swept away by a great misdirection joke when he finds this out.
Working here he meets Hendricks, her douchebag husband Regent (Ryan Hansen), with whom she is permitted one short scene to establish their relationship, and Gina (Jenny Zigrino), whom Marcus has to woo in order to get hold of the building’s keys. And Brett Kelly’s naive Thurman is back, having followed Willie across the country to spend Christmas with him.
Hints that Willie and his mother will reconcile rear up, but they aren’t what we’re here for. The laughs are in there being no limit to how unpleasant they’ll be to one another, and that’ll do. Certainly the funny is there, but Bad Santa 2’s MO is to fill the gaps between the laughs with gasps of shock, and here it’s trying too hard to be outrageous. It wants you to accept certain ideas in order to bring you along as a guilty participant in this, such as that the appearance of people with dwarfism is inherently funny, and that overweight women are grateful participants in any type of sex.
The issue isn’t so much that this is offensive, and indeed anyone who finds it so probably should’ve watched the trailer before buying a ticket; it’s that it’s a low bar set with a slightly desperate agenda to be edgy.
When all this is resolved it’s done very well, and without recourse to anyone really learning the true meaning of Christmas, so give Bad Santa 2 a pat on the back for that. If it wants to hang around in the kitchen at the Christmas party and moan about how it gets earlier every year then fine, you’ll stick around and have a laugh with it for a few minutes. But sooner or later you’ll want to make your excuses and make a beeline for the canapés.