"Bad Santa 2" Is A Blight On Its Fabled Predecessor

Oscar-winner Billy Bob Thornton is a glitch in the Hollywood power grid, a frighteningly good character actor who might’ve made a career of being that guy. You know the one: recognizable face without a sticky name, destined to skillfully float in and out of movies to little, if any, fanfare. But you, dear reader, are living in that crazy alternate universe where Mr. Thornton, with an assist from his very sticky first name(s), hopped the fence to stardom and made good as a leading man. He did it! High fives all around.

2003’s “Bad Santa” wasn’t the first movie to go to bat for Billy Bob’s ability to carry a movie, but it was the best case to date. A mean, safe-cracking drunk in a Santa suit goes for one last score, only to have the microscopic sliver of good in him win out in the end. Terry Zwigoff’s film was not perfect, but Thornton’s performance was, selling a tangy riff on How The Grinch Stole Christmas as only his grizzled visage could. Thirteen years later, the movie is still as funny and as unexpectedly heartrending as ever.

But in this case, thirteen years later also means a belated, gaseous sequel that slowly burns off its fumes of disappointment until all that’s left is a flaming hull of misery. It gets one lonely thing right: it is not the same movie as its predecessor. (How could it be without Zwigoff or the late John Ritter or the late Bernie Mac?) It’s a small consolation, as the worst shot-for-shot remake imaginable might have been preferable to the actual final product. Where Zwigoff and writers Glen Ficarra and John Requa went all in on clever, inclusive misanthropy while backing off from obvious gross-out humor, the team behind “Bad Santa 2” goes all in on the latter, shamelessly riding the coattails of “The Hangover” (which is now almost eight years old) and its ilk.

The result fails everyone involved, no one more than its star. Even with Thornton returning to one of his flagship roles, the picture is a sweatily unfunny exercise in shit-slinging, lobbing tactless jokes about necrophilia, pedophilia, rape, incest, and matricide (along with shots at gay people, little people, and people of color) at its audience in hopes that some of it will stick. Unfortunately, the whole stinky affair ends up a major lesson in metaphor parsing. It all sticks, because it’s shit.

Seeing Willie (Thornton), Marcus (Tony Cox), and American hero Thurman Merman (a now grown-up but still preternaturally awkward Brett Kelly) again is a hoot – for about ten minutes. Once the screenplay settles into its rickety, Chicago-set heist story (they’re robbing a charity, har har), the movie becomes a bore, then a chore, then little more than a delivery system for some of the vilest (and yet consistently not funny) jokes in mainstream movie history. The writers don’t even know what to do with Thurman, keeping him on the story’s periphery, hauling him out whenever they feel like making an autism joke.

Kathy Bates, also an Oscar-winner, is the bullseye for much of the movie’s comedic disrepair. She plays Willie’s estranged mother Sunny, greeted by her son with a clenched fist to the noggin – par for the course in how the movie treats its female characters. Christina Hendricks (AMC’s “Mad Men”) plays a pseudo-love interest for Willie, “pseudo” meaning she’s used primarily as a sex object and to move the plot along. Lauren Graham’s turn in the original film is a paradigm of character development by comparison, with Hendricks visibly uncomfortable in many of her scenes.

In the face of such rampant misogyny and general hatefulness, Thornton and Cox do their best to match the sleazy energy of the original film, but it’s all for naught. The words on the page range from try-hard to lame insult comedy, like a game of scrabble with the world’s unfunniest sixth-grader.

“Bad Santa” was not politically correct, but it was funny – and sneakily charming. “Bad Santa 2” has nothing to offer but political incorrectness, stretched thin like an old rubber band in subzero temperatures. Zwigoff’s original film was so often amusing because its misanthropy was aimed at undeserving targets. Here it’s awful people being awful to other awful people, consistently stopping on a dime to say ugly things because they presumably have nothing else to say (or because the screenwriters have to fill out ninety pages somehow).

In other words, “Bad Santa 2” – for the people in your life who thought “Zoolander 2” was too funny.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: November 23, 2016
Studio: Broad Green Pictures, Miramax
Director: Mark Waters
Screenwriter: Johnny Rosenthal, Shauna Cross
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Christina Hendricks
MPAA Rating: R (for crude sexual content and language throughout, and some graphic nudity)