Hard to believe that the notorious anti-Christmas classic Bad Santa is 13 years old. Even harder to believe that this sequel — the unimaginatively titled Bad Santa 2 — took so long to get to our screens and yet show not a lick of the first movie’s inspiration or subversion. It took more than a decade to come up with what is little more than a pale imitation of an original that had wrapped itself up very satisfyingly? Why bother if there isn’t something new to add?
None of the original behind-the-camera creative team is back for 2, certainly not producers and uncredited scriptwriters Joel and Ethan Coen. And Billy Bob Thornton (Our Brand Is Crisis, Entourage), returning as safecracker and utter reprobate Willie Soke, looks like he’d rather be elsewhere. And why not? A simplified retread of the original movie’s plot has Willie dragged back into a life of crime by his former partner, Marcus (Tony Cox: Strange Magic, Oz the Great and Powerful), as they plot a heist of a Chicago charity that employs sidewalk Santas to solicit donations. It is most definitely not in the spirit of Bad Santa to render their theft “okay” because the charity is itself a scam: none of the money collected ends up with the needy. The script — by first-timer Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross (If I Stay, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) — misses lots of opportunities to indulge in the true reprehensibleness required here.
Actually, Willie and Marcus have been brought in by Willie’s mother, Sunny (Kathy Bates: The Great Gilly Hopkins, The Boss), who has the inside scoop on the charity and can morph from a seemingly kindly old granny who makes a wonderful Mrs. Claus to crude badass biker chick with the flick of her support hose. Bates is one of the highlights of the movie, even if she’s nowhere near old enough to have been the teenage mother of a man Thornton’s age: her performance is refreshingly free of vanity and decorum (though even that is hardly a surprise from Bates, who always throws herself facefirst into even the nastiest roles). More of the movie needs the sort of vile yet resigned zing she brings to Sunny’s life.
The return of Thurman Merman, the strange, naive little kid who clung to Willie in the first movie, convinced he was the real Santa Claus, is another bright spot. Actor Brett Kelly is back (though he had to fatten himself up again for the role), and his now 21-year-old Thurman remains one of the most weirdly wonderful characters in recent cinematic history, a sweet oddball oblivious to just how odd he is. There’s an effortless lightness, an otherworldly joy, to Kelly’s Thurman that is a rare comic thing to see onscreen.
One of the remarkable aspects about the original Bad Santa is how it didn’t punch down, not even at the characters that other, lesser films readily turn into objects of scorn. And that, at least, remains the case with 2: all of these people, from the horrible ones to the kinds ones, retain a dignity that few grossout comedies — as this one most surely is — grant their characters. It’s not much to elevate Bad Santa 2 in a frequently repugnant cinematic environment, but it’s something.