Bad Santa 2 (United States, 2016)

November 24, 2016
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Bad Santa 2 Poster

2003’s Bad Santa was a milestone in feel-bad black comedy. Directed by Terry Zwigoff, written by Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, and co-executive produced by the Coen Brothers, it was a holiday movie unlike any previous holiday movie. Although the film wasn’t a box office smash, it found new life on home video and rumors began to surface that Billy Bob Thornton was interested in reprising the role. It’s taken thirteen years but we finally have Bad Santa 2. The assumption might be that this was enough time to get it right, to produce a film that would add something worthwhile to the previous tale. Sadly, as with too many assumptions made about the quality of sequels, it’s wrong. At its best, Bad Santa 2 feels like an echo of its predecessor.  At its worst, it’s unfunny, crass, and uncomfortable (not in a good way).

The one constant between the two films is Thornton, whose misanthropic Willie continues to remind us about what might be going on with those dime-store Santas we see on city street corners and in run-down shopping centers between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  (To be fair, high end stores have high end Santas, so Willie need not apply there.) Despite the ray of hope at the end of Bad Santa, things haven’t gone too well for our anti-hero during the intervening years. He’s broke, drunk, and friendless. His girlfriend from the first film hasn’t stuck around, but the kid (Brett Kelly’s Thurman Merman) has, his emotional and social development arrested. He’s an eight-year old boy in a 21-year old man’s body and is both the bane and the blessing of Willie’s cursed existence.

Just when things couldn’t get much worse (there’s a failed suicide attempt involved), a face from the past arrives to darken Willie’s day. He and Marcus Skidmore (Tony Cox) didn’t part on the best of terms but his old pal thinks it’s time to let bygones be bygones since there’s a business deal involved. Turns out that Willie’s estranged mother, Sunny (Kathy Bates), intends to rob a charity and she needs a safecracker. Who better to turn to than her son? So, after some hemming and hawing, Willie agrees to become the third member of the team and it’s off to Chicago.

Bad Santa 2 has a few genuinely funny sequences and the humor is just as bleak as in Bad Santa. For his first suicide attempt, Willie puts his head in the oven and turns it on. He quickly learns that asphyxiation isn’t an option when the range is electric. Later, he hires a prostitute (Octavia Spencer reprising her role as Opal) to relieve Thurman of his virginity; his description to the young man of the mechanics of how this should be accomplished isn’t exactly poetry. Finally, there’s the obligatory scene in which Willie dons the Santa suit and allows kids to sit on his lap. Although a slam-dunk in the humor department, the filmmakers don’t mess it up.

The director is Mark Waters, who began his career nearly 20 years ago with the weird and twisted indie Sundance darling, The House of Yes, and graduated to make Mean Girls. Since then, however, it has been Vampire Academy and Cheerleader Death Squad. Bad Santa 2 isn’t likely to propel him back up the Hollywood hiring ladder. One of the biggest problems with this movie is the tone. Dark comedies are notoriously difficult to get right. In Bad Santa, Zwigoff nailed it. He gave us uncomfortable (in a good way) laughs, characters that felt real, and a storyline that was interesting. Waters misses the mark on all three counts. The movie is more mean-spirited than anything else and, although Thornton’s performance is perfect, the character simply repeats his Bad Santa arc (with Christina Hendricks replacing Lauren Graham as the “good woman”). At least the movie has the guts not to opt for a cop-out ending. When it comes to the relationships among the lead trio of Willie, his mom, and his former sidekick, it’s all bile, insults, and bad feelings. The “happy ending” comes from elsewhere.

Just because the word “bad” is in the title didn’t mean that the filmmakers had to take it literally. Thirteen years was either too little time or too much - it definitely isn’t “just right.” And, if this is the best the filmmakers could do after allowing the ideas to bake for so long, Bad Santa should have been left alone. In truth, it didn’t need a sequel and it especially didn’t need this one.  

Bad Santa 2 (United States, 2016)

Director: Mark Waters
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Tony Cox, Christina Hendricks, Brett Kelly, Jenny Zigrino
Screenplay: Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross
Cinematography: Theo van de Sande
Music: Lyle Workman
U.S. Distributor: Broad Green Pictures
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2016-11-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1