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Bad Santa 2 | Review

Regifted Goods: Waters Takes the Reigns for Unnecessary Sequel

Mark Waters Bad Santa 2There’s an art to vulgar comedy, requiring a sly talent for successfully presenting off color humor while hinting precariously at the bittersweet humanity underneath its hard-edged cynicism, a ploy which allows for a bit of sobering juxtaposition. The 2003 comedy Bad Santa, which still stands as a highlight for Terry Zwigoff, as well as the best screenplay offering from Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, understood the necessity of this balance, which helped enliven its outré inappropriateness. Now, thirteen years later, director Mark Waters (of Mean Girls and Mr. Popper’s Penguins fame) has the misfortune of directing this unnecessary resuscitation of Billy Bob Thornton’s nihilistic criminal from a rather wearying and derisive screenplay, penned by the unlikely duo Johnny Rosenthal (his feature debut) and Shauna Cross (who adapted He’s Just Not That Into You and Whip It). Despite choice casting and returning core characters, this yuletide formula is missing the requisite spice to reach the same heights of comedic arousal. Belabored antics and a contrived narrative extolling the virtues of choosing and cherishing one’s own familial unit makes this endeavor feel like lukewarm leftovers.

Drifting through his self-induced drunken effluvium in Phoenix, petty thief and miscreant Willie Soke (Thornton) bemoans the loss of a promising relationship thirteen years prior. With the exception of the now twenty-year old Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), whom Willie befriended as a ten-year-old, Soke doesn’t receive any visitors. When his old cohort Marcus Skidmore (Tony Cox) shows up suddenly, Willie is able to let bygones be bygones and forget their bad blood to take part in a new scheme involving robbing two million dollars from a charity in Chicago run by a troubled married couple (Christina Hendricks, Ryan Hansen), gearing up for a significant Christmas themed drive. Little does Willie know, Marcus is working for his estranged criminal mother (Kathy Bates) and the job involves impersonating Santa Claus, once again.

Dubiously filling in for director Terry Zwigoff is Mark Waters, a director who has worked tirelessly in studio produced, adolescent intended fluff since the 2003 remake of Freaky Friday. Following the success of Mean Girls, he’s been responsible for a slew of forgettable family friendly ventures (The Spiderwick Chronicles; Vampire Academy), which is all rather disappointing considering his devious 1997 debut with indie film The House of Yes. Unfortunately, Bad Santa 2 is only a derivative rehash of the first film, delivering a nasty mish-mash of sexually inappropriate behavior as a tangential distraction from a rather routine heist formula, which requires the resurrection of Santa costuming to infiltrate access to the donations garnered by a well-meaning (if perilously handled) charity.

Players like Bernie Mac (rest in peace), Cloris Leachman, and Lauren Graham are replaced by the likes of Christina Hendricks and Kathy Bates. Both seem fair game for this, though Hendricks feels useless in a rather thankless role as a sobered, born again hussy with tendencies for tawdry, unprotected sex in dark alleys. Those who can appreciate a foul-mouthed gutter-minded Kathy Bates may find a bit to gloat over with her fun turn as Thornton’s deadbeat, con-artist mama—but it may inspire you to dust off your copy of Misery for a re-watch instead. Perhaps most ungainly is the reappearance of Brett Kelly, only ten years old at the time of the first film’s release. Here he’s the sweet natured simpleton who continues to be the butt of the joke, but seems tacked on illogically as a lazy way to instill a sympathetic streak in Thornton’s near unsalvageable misanthrope. Kelly’s presence does allow for one sequence of priceless hilarity featuring Octavia Spencer as a blonde bewigged prostitute, her brief moment of screen time begging for its own film.

Bad Santa 2 seems to aspirate its big blatant message about how we should believe people when they show us who they really are based on their actions, but also seems to ask forgiveness for those broken souls who force others to withstand a litany of abuses before revealing vulnerability. Too little and too late, Bad Santa 2 should have been smarter, sharper, and less flaccid than it is.

★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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