In Bad Santa 2, 13 years after the events of the original Bad Santa, Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton)—now out of prison and eking out a pitiful existence in Phoenix—appears to be the same alcoholic, sex-crazed, crude, self-loathing lout he ever was. This much-belated sequel, however, represents something so much worse than stagnation: a severe regression. There was more to Willie in Terry Zwigoff’s 2003 original than a delivery machine for a stream of free-floating physical and verbal vulgarities, with the character giving occasional hints in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s script of a troubled childhood leading to his current self-destructive behavior. Bad Santa coursed with a certain empathy for this appalling character—wholly in keeping with Zwigoff’s previous features (the documentary Crumb, the graphic-novel adaptation Ghost World)—and, though frequently outrageous, the film was, in its own twisted way, humane.
There are no such humanizing touches to be found in any unendurable minute of Mark Waters’ sequel. Instead, screenwriters Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross merely ramp up the obscenities, as if operating under the sophomoric belief that characters frequently swearing at each other and objectifying women is, in and of itself, the height of comic wit. Zwigoff somehow managed to wring out genuine pathos in the scene in Bad Santa when Willie tells young kid Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father as a child. No such pathos exists, however, with the introduction of Sunny (Kathy Bates), Willie’s estranged and dying mother, in Bad Santa 2. She’s basically even worse than he is, cartoonishly so (her idea of an affectionate nickname for her son is to call him a “shit stool” repeatedly).
Such caricatures are merely par for the course in Bad Santa 2, which overall plays like little more than an outsized freak show. Most telling of this sequel’s anti-human priorities is its characterization of Thurman this time around: He’s now 21 years old, but he’s become an even worse case of arrested development than he was in the first film. As strange as it was for Thurman to keep on pretending that Willie was Santa Claus even though he knew in the back of his mind such was hardly the case, Zwigoff & co. never stooped so low as to deride him in Bad Santa. In fact, there was something heroic in the way he, in his introductory scene, marched right past the bullies taunting him on his way to the shopping mall. He didn’t always get away from those bullies scot-free—the second time we see him pass those bullies, he endures the indignity of a wedgie—but, unlike other cinematic tortured adolescent heroes, he didn’t appear to agonize too much over it, instead choosing to soldier on the next day.
For Bad Santa 2, Waters, Rosenthal and Cross seem to have ditched (or missed the point of) that compassionately ennobling quality entirely. The Thurman we see in this sequel is a clingy grotesque whose sexual inadequacies are made objects of fun, and who is generally treated as not so much a conscience but the closest thing the film has to a straight man in a sea of weirdos, some more monstrous than others. Rosenthal and Cross don’t even care to make their heist plot somewhat imaginative, because they’re too busy lavishing attention on the wall-to-wall barrage of filth, insults and degradation.
Bad Santa 2 commits the cardinal sin the original avoided: It ends up wholly inhabiting the hatred of humanity from which Zwigoff distanced himself even as he understood it. By the end of this insufferable sequel, misanthropes who gloried in the bad-taste transgressions of Bad Santa may well find themselves persuaded to give conventionally heartwarming holiday entertainment—like, say, A Charlie Brown Christmas—a try for once.
Director: Mark Waters
Writer: Johnny Rosenthal, Shauna Cross
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Tony Cox, Christina Hendricks, Brett Kelly, Ryan Hansen
Release Date: November 23, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine. When he’s not watching movies or writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.