What if Willie T. Stokes, the miserable degenerate crook Billy Bob Thornton uproariously portrayed in Bad Santa, had a miserable degenerate mother? And what if she was played, with a maximum of vulgarity-savoring relish, by none other than Kathy Bates? That’s the one and only fresh idea trotted out by Bad Santa 2, a very belated (and very unnecessary) sequel to the 2003 anti-yuletide classic. Having a second member of the Stokes family around to fire insults in all directions certainly compounds the already significant profanity count. What it doesn’t do is distract much from the realization that a singular black comedy has been shamelessly re-gifted. The heist-movie plot, the bawdy gags, the ironic repurposing of old holiday-season chestnuts: They’re all here, hastily stuffed into a new package.
Bad Santa 2 is the kind of sequel that makes you appreciate the intangibles of the creative process. It demonstrates how a lousy movie can be made from basically the same ingredients as a good one. The original Bad Santa was a group effort, marrying director Terry Zwigoff’s misanthropic deadpan to the acid wit of screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa and the equally biting sensibilities of the Coen brothers, who produced and did an uncredited polish of the script. None of these people had anything to do with Bad Santa 2, and their absence is felt. The best that can be said about the new creative team, headed by Mean Girls director Mark Waters, is that it doesn’t water down the drinks. There are jokes here about sex fetishes, date rape, abortion, alcoholism, pedophilia, necrophilia, bestiality, and eugenics. No one could accuse those involved of catering to more delicate tastes this time around.
Delivering an opening voice-over that essentially recaps the events of the last movie, all while mocking the very idea of a sequel, Thornton reprises the starring role of Willie, who’s just about as biliously unhappy as he was 13 years earlier. After two failed suicide attempts—if one was funny in the first film, why not double it?—Willie reluctantly agrees to travel from Phoenix to Chicago with his old backstabbing partner, diminutive ex-con Marcus (Tony Cox), to rip off a charity. This is against his better judgment even before he discovers that the job will involve slipping into another Santa suit—and, more distressingly, working with his detested mother, whom he greets (in one of the movie’s better gags) with an instinctive sucker punch. Still, Willie agrees to stick around, if only to get into the pants of charity head Diane (Christina Hendricks, filling the kinky love-interest role vacated by Lauren Graham).
Thornton, it can’t be denied, wrings a few more scuzzy laughs from this recycled scenario; he has no trouble getting back into mean-spirited character, delivering his toxic heckles with bastardly conviction. But Bad Santa 2 fights an uphill battle with no such vigor: We already know that Willie’s not all awful, so there’s little surprise left in seeing Thornton slowly introduce a few drops of sweet to go with the sour. If the original had a dramatic center, it was in the dysfunctional surrogate-father bond he formed with that overweight misfit kid, who returns here as an overweight misfit adult. It’s a good joke at first, seeing the same actor, Brett Kelly, as a 21-year-old version of the character, still meeting Willie’s obscenities with grinning-idiot optimism. (He’s toward the “high end of the spectrum,” the grown-up Thurman Merman confesses, by way of explaining why his behavior hasn’t changed.) After a while, though, it becomes clear that Bad Santa 2 arrests their relationship so that it doesn’t have to think of a way to develop it any further: In yet another respect, this is the same damn movie.
It’s no one’s fault, necessarily, that a minivan full of irresponsible teachers, mothers, gymnasts, and spelling-bee contestants have rendered a Bad Santa sequel redundant. Likewise, you can’t entirely hold it against Waters and company that the film’s more racist, sexist, and homophobic zingers (“I don’t speak politically correct,” Bates’ bad matriarch announces early on, in what basically amounts to the film’s mission statement) sound a little less funny this horrifying year than they might have previously. But the timing could be perfect and Bad Santa 2 would still look like a rerun—an impression only furthered by the introduction of a salty, heretofore-unseen relative, which is a move straight out of the laziest of sitcom playbooks. If these diminished returns add anything to what we now must refer to as the Bad Santa franchise, it’s an implicit logical progression of the original’s yuletide critique: Some Christmases, you just get a shittier version of something you already have.