There’s an almost impossibly thin line separating the kind of vulgar behavior that can find its way to being charming, and stays at just plain vulgar. I’m still not sure I understand the formula, but the original Bad Santa go it right. In it, Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) was portrayed as a man in pain and functioning alcoholic who held down a job as a department store Santa Claus who lashed out at the world with every four-letter word in the book and an endless supply of bad behavior. He was sympathetic, to an strange degree, and while we didn’t rush to give him a hug, we surmised that something in his past made him aggressively nasty and obscene. We noticed Willie’s heart most when he was around his young charge Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), a slow but caring kid that Willie seemed to actually care about.
It’s tough to pinpoint the difference, but Bad Santa 2 is a largely terrible ordeal of a film. First of all, nothing makes me miss Bernie Mac and John Ritter than not having them alive any more to make this movie tolerable. With just a few tweaks in the wrong direction, this sequel felt like garbage for the sake of garbage. In the first film, we suspect that Willie had a terrible life that led to his terrible adulthood, but the details were left to our imagination. In Bad Santa 2, a returning Marcus (Tony Cox) brings Willie a new plan that is guaranteed to make them a lot of money, and all they have to do is go to Chicago and work with Willie’s estranged mother Sunny (Kathy Bates, officially shot out of a cannon). Now all of the horrible events we imagined are taken away from us, replaced with stories of Sunny and Willie Soke working together as mother and son, and they aren’t nearly as interesting.
A huge factor in Bad Santa succeeding was the deft touch of director Terry Zwigoff, who does not return for Act 2. Instead, we get Mark Waters at the helm, and his long, mostly successful string of PG and PG-13-rated works (Mean Girls, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Freaky Friday) doesn’t seem to blend quite as well in the most R-rated environment possible. Sure, everyone is still swearing up a storm, having ill-advised sexual encounters, and pulling off crimes, but it seems more canned and less provocative this time around. More of a straight-up heist film, Bad Santa 2 involves the team knocking off a charity, partly run by Diane Hastings (Christina Hendricks), who has a strange, almost unnatural, attraction to Willie. A now early-20s Kelly is also back as Thurman, and he adds very little to the proceeds, save one almost-moving sequence near the end.
Aside from Bates barely squeezing out a couple of good lines here, Bad Santa 2 is a laugh-free zone. I will always get a certain amount of satisfaction hearing Billy Bob Thornton swear so beautifully; he really turns it into an art form. But the film seems overly structured, stripped of anything resembling subtlety, and largely devoid of jokes or anything you’d be tempted to laugh at. Considering the first Bad Santa film was released 13 years ago, and the sequel has been held up in development for a couple of years, you’d figure that would be enough time to pull something together that was better than this. There’s something terribly safe about Bad Santa 2, and that goes against everything I stand for. If Waters and company aren’t going to shoot for the stars, why bother? If you (rightfully) hold any type of affection for the first film, I can’t imagine you enjoying any part of the sadly broken Bad Santa 2. After-the-fact backstory is almost never successful in a film (just ask almost any horror movie prequel), and it’s especially bad here when you combine it with graceless trash talk.