The first Bad Santa was a classic sleeper when it came out in 2003: a below-the-radar, low budget independent release that ended up raking in $60 million at the box office and becoming an even bigger sensation on home video. And it deserved every bit of that success. Bad Santa was a nasty little subversion of holiday movies, full of raunch and vigor. Yet, it had a heart beating under all that grime. Its characters were well-defined, their arcs earned, and the humor (as gross as it could be) was organic to the story.
Bad Santa may or may not have kicked off the last decade’s craze for increasingly over-the-top gross-out comedies, but its influence and impact in that space has been undeniable. A sequel seemed inevitable, yet it took 13 years and lots of similar films to have come and gone in the interim. That gives Bad Santa 2 the unenviable task of both living up to the original and trying to keep up with the comedic shockers of the day, a task it does not quite succeed at despite an earnest and even better than expected attempt.
Still, let’s make no mistake: Bad Santa 2 is not a very good film, but neither is it as unwatchable as, say, The Hangover 2. It begins in weird Alien 3 territory by erasing any of the gains achieved by poor old Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) in the first film. By the end of Bad Santa, Willie — while still an unapologetic thief and lout — had built himself a little bizarro family of his own and had people to care about in the form of Thurman “The Kid” Merman (Brett Kelly) and lusty bartender Sue (Lauren Graham). As Bad Santa 2 opens, Sue is no longer around, and Willie finds himself alone and even suicidal, contemplating that there are “no happy endings.” Even a visit from a now-grown but still, er, dense Thurman fails to pick him up.
The strange, nihilistic tone is jarring compared to the way the first movie ended, but things get back on track with a call from Marcus (Tony Cox), Willie’s old partner in Christmastime crime who has a big job that he wants Willie for in Chicago. Despite his mistrust — Marcus did try to kill him the last time they were together — Willie heads out there with nothing to lose and discovers that the target is a holiday charity/shelter run by the buxom Diane (Christina Hendricks) and her double-dealing husband (Ryan Hansen). Even as the idea of robbing the charity nags at what conscience Willie does have, he also discovers to his horror that the mastermind behind the job is his mother Sunny (Kathy Bates), a foul-mouthed, hateful, grifter supreme who has little use for her son beyond his safecracking skills.
The idea of meeting Willie’s mother (early drafts of the script had him reuniting with his dad) is a clever one, setting up one of the more antagonistic mother/son dynamics you could imagine. And Bates is a delight, letting the obscenities and raunch fly freely as she parades around in her armor of tattoos, crewcut and biker duds. Despite some early promise, however, the movie devolves largely into a series of pratfalls and fights between Sue, Willie and Marcus, some of which are intermittently funny but most of which do little to move the story or characters along. Other elements, like Thurman showing up in Chicago, are merely contrived to have another familiar face in the proceedings — this film dearly misses the late Bernie Mac and John Ritter as the crooked detective and boneless department store manager from the first film. Meanwhie, Hendricks is reduced to shagging Thornton behind a Christmas tree and deploying Graham’s signature exclamation from Bad Santa’s more memorable sexual escapades.
By the time Bad Santa 2 shambles to its climax, whatever good will it still retains is largely thanks to the principal players, who all gamely soldier on as the sequel gets drearier and feels longer. Director Mark Waters (Mean Girls, replacing the much more sardonic Terry Zwigoff) does a workmanlike job, not getting anything out of the script that is or isn’t already there, but Bates’ outrageousness, Thornton’s deadpan resignation and Kelly’s plain weirdness are good for some chuckles along the way. In the end, Bad Santa 2 is a film that doesn’t provide any real reason for its existence other than to cash in on the cult status of the original brand; it’s also proof that the same inspiration doesn’t always strike twice. It’s like buying someone a lesser version of that great Christmas present you got them a few years earlier.
Bad Santa 2 is in theaters now.