Back in November 2006, director Terry Zwigoff unleashed Bad Santa on the world, delivering the perfect antidote to the crass-commercialism and forced cheer that mars the festive season. Flash forward 13 years and new director Mark Waters aims to capture the same blend of pitch black comedy and surprisingly heartfelt emotion with follow-up effort Bad Santa 2. Unfortunately, this second outing is a bit like warmed-up Christmas leftovers: still enjoyable, but far less satisfying than what was served up the first time around.
Bad Santa 2 reintroduces us to safe cracker Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), whose life has somehow descended into an even deeper morass of alcoholism, debt and general depravity than in the first film. The only ray of light in his otherwise bleak existence remains Thurman (Brett Kelly), a mentally impaired kid who remains devoted to Willie despite the miserable old boozer’s best efforts to drive him away.
On the verge of suicide, Willie’s fortunes suddenly take a positive turn when former partner-in-crime Marcus (Tony Cox) recruits him for a $2 million score ripping off a children’s charity run by good-hearted bombshell Diane (Christina Hendricks). The catch? Willie will have to work alongside his estranged mother Sunny (Kathy Bates) – an even more morally bankrupt version of himself who has cheated him before.
As with the first film, the best thing about Bad Santa 2 is its outstanding cast.
Thornton is as note-perfect as ever as Willie. The way he straddles the line between out-and-out drunken deviant and someone with an incredibly faint spark of human decency in him is as impressive now as it was over a decade ago. Cox is similarly on point again as the diminutive Marcus, and his feisty delivery makes the fun had at his expense far more palatable than it otherwise would be. Rounding out the gang, Bates is predictably reliable as Sunny, constantly keeping us guessing over where her loyalties truly lie and scoring her fair share of chuckles along the way.
Hendricks, meanwhile, does a lot with Diane, a fairly underwritten, stock character – a good girl with a sordid past and dirty inclinations. To be honest, the only real weak link of the main players is Kelly as Thurman. Granted, he’s not given an easy part to play, and he’s burdened with some fairly clunky dialogue at times. Even so, there’s no denying that Kelly simply isn’t the same calibre of actor as the rest of his castmates.
But then Bad Santa 2 isn’t exactly the same calibre of movie as its predecessor, either.
It’s not that Bad Santa 2 is a bad film, exactly. It’s just that the first Bad Santa already did all the same things and said all the same stuff as this sequel – only better.
The screenplay by Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross is less insightful, their witty barbs less sharp. You’ll definitely laugh out loud more than once over the course of Bad Santa 2’s 92-minute runtime – in particular, a brutal encounter between Willie and a fellow Santa will have you wheezing with glee. Yet more often than not, Rosenthal and Cross forgo the sophisticated filth of the original in favour of brute-force vulgarity and pure shock factor, and it’s just not that funny.
Similarly, where Zwigoff’s direction gave Bad Santa a hard, real-world edge, Waters opts for a more cartoonish air that leaves Bad Santa 2 feels misjudged. In fairness, Waters does his best to inject Bad Santa 2 with as much of the same (badly bruised) heart that characterised its predecessor, but the overall lack of nuance employed here ultimately lessens the film’s emotional impact.
The first Bad Santa set a high bar for alternative Christmas fare, so it was perhaps inevitable that any sequel would struggle to reach the same heights. That said, thanks mostly to a strong cast led by Billy Bob Thornton, Bad Santa 2 doesn’t quite belong on this year’s cinematic naughty list – and offers an easy escape for those suffering from Yuletide overload.
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