Thirteen years after its release, the original Bad Santa persists as the black sheep's Christmas perennial because the raunchy content, the rampant profanity, the shameless characters, and the overall depravity feels organic. This is the movie you put on after the kids have gone to sleep and you're sick of having the music to The Polar Express stuck in your head. It's hysterically funny, ruthlessly offensive, and somehow still manages to tickle the pale underbelly of your holiday spirit. Watching Bad Santa is to experience pitch black comedy gold as only Terry Zwigoff could deliver it. Like all of his films, it stands head and shoulders among pale imitators as a singular work. Whether you're partial to his immortal documentary Crumb, or you have a soft spot for the quirkily insightful Ghost World, beneath the surface is a self-deprecating genius who understands the material because a part of his scarred psyche has lived it.
This Thanksgiving, the director of the Freaky Friday remake and Vampire Academy brings us an unnecessary sequel that feels like watching a sociopath with perfect pitch attempting to play Beethoven on the piano: The timing is right and he hits all the notes correctly, but there's no soul to it. I'm reminded of when American Pie was released in 1999, in the aftermath there was a new stress put on "raunchy" comedy. The inevitable result was a slew of unfunny craptastic studio turds, all made with the sensibility that pumping a film full of sexual innuendo, boobs, and profane pop culture references was the recipe for a surefire hit. This kind of feels like watching one of those one-off middling efforts, trying to find its own voice amidst a cacophonous avalanche of studio notes.
With swirling locks of pure white hair and deeper frown lines, Billy Bob Thornton has returned to the role of Willie with the same snarling alcoholic zest that made him a laugh riot the first time. Also returning is Tony Cox as Marcus, compacting twice as much hatred and bitterness as Thornton into a body less than half the size. Lacking a Lauren Graham (preoccupied filming the revival of Gilmore Girls for Netflix), the screenwriters upped the cup size instead of the ante by giving us Christina Hendricks, playing a closet pervert and open idealist who helps run a children's charity in Chicago. We also get Kathy Bates as Thornton's estranged mother. The scenes with her and Thornton are the best by far, because Waters is actually given an opportunity to work off the carefully studied grid of the original.
It's clear that Waters and his screenwriters, Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross, have great respect for what Zwigoff accomplished. They stick extraordinarily close to the formula established by the original scribes, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. In fact, they stick so close to it that some scenes play like bad karaoke instead of a bomb-ass cover band. There are dialogue exchanges in Bad Santa 2 so out of place, reaching so hard for effect, they practically dropkick you out of the movie. One particular instance in which Tony Cox tells off John Ritter's surrogate security guard, comes off as being so... written, it made me cock my head to one side like a dog listening to a strange noise. Just as out of place with no discernible motivation are the film's two "villains," Ryan Hansen as our Bernie Mac "keeper of the cheese" substitute, and his hopelessly incompetent security guard played by Jeff Skowron. The banter between Mac and Ritter in the original created two unique characters with a funny dynamic that gave us some sense of who Bad Santa and his Evil Elf were robbing. Hansen and Skowron are cardboard cutouts as pointless as a sixth toe. On a spider.
That's not to say that there isn't anything to like in the film. I was never bored by it. There are some pretty big laughs when Mark Waters and his screenwriters aren't playing it so safe that you can imagine them dressed in biohazard suits. Kathy Bates is amusing all the way through, and the relationship she builds with Thornton works well to lend some semblance of gravitas to the inevitable surprises in the third act. But just as it was with the original, Bad Santa 2 belongs to Billy Bob Thornton and Brett Kelly as the starry-eyed, almost-retarded, sandwich-making child trapped in a man's body, Thurman Merman. Kelly almost walks away with this movie tucked away in his too-tight polo, and it's Thurman's relationship with Willie that provides a capstone scene which reminds us that it wasn't just the profane raunch that made the original Bad Santa so memorable. It was also the message that, no matter how screwed up someone is -- even if you're the guy who bangs Christina Hendricks next to a row of Christmas trees in view of small children -- miracles can happen. Or maybe it was just the booze talking.
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- Blake O. Kleiner