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Proud Grinches Beware: Sentimentality Sinks 'Bad Santa 2'

Brett Kelly stars as Thurman Merman and Billy Bob Thornton as Willie Soke in <em>Bad Santa 2.</em>
Jan Thijs
Broad Green Pictures/Miramax
Brett Kelly stars as Thurman Merman and Billy Bob Thornton as Willie Soke in Bad Santa 2.

For yuletide misanthropes nationwide, Bad Santa has become a kind of alternative holiday tradition, the shot of Wild Turkey spiking the eggnog. What's forgotten is that Terry Zwigoff's delectably nasty 2003 comedy was a hit despite a bitter post-production struggle between Zwigoff and the studio, Miramax, which decided the film needed "heart," did reshoots (some without Zwigoff's participation), and released the film as a parent might release a soiled diaper. Plenty of American children have sat on the laps of sketchy mall Santas with liquor on their breath, but there was legitimate concern over committing pop-culture sacrilege, especially given Zwigoff's reluctance to send audiences away with the warm fuzzies. His bad Santa was going to be bad all the way.

Now 14 years later, without Zwigoff's guiding hand, Bad Santa 2 arrives like a sad lump of coal at the bottom of a tube sock, perhaps fitting punishment for the nastiness and vulgarity of our politics. Once-edgy jokes about Santa's vomit-caked beard, his open hostility toward children, and sexual proclivities in line with R. Crumb are now compulsory elements, like Bruce Willis saying "Yippie-ki-yay" in a Die Hard sequel. Worse than the amplified foulness, however, is the fact that Bad Santa 2has an irredeemably squishy center, as if director Mark Waters and his screenwriters, Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross, were paying heed to Miramax's notes on the original film. A sticky drizzle of sentimentality doesn't make this toilet cake go down any easier.

Last we heard from Willie T. Stokes, the safecracking Santa played by Billy Bob Thornton, he was sent upriver for conspiring with his partner, Marcus (Tony Cox), to rip off a department store flush with Christmas cash. As Bad Santa 2 opens, Willie has lost his latest job as a valet in Phoenix for crashing a car while ogling a breastfeeding woman. Opportunity knocks when Marcus resurfaces with an offer to rework their scheme again in Chicago, where the gains from a children's charity could net them $2 million. (In one of the film's few good jokes, Willie objects to the plan—not because stealing from a charity is wrong, but because he can't imagine they'd have that kind of money.)

Given that Marcus double-crossed him on their last gig, Willie has reason to suspect the job isn't on the up-and-up, and his concerns deepen when his estranged mother Sunny (Kathy Bates) is introduced as their woman on the inside. With Willie, Marcus, and Sunny ringing the charity bell as Santa, an elf, and Mrs. Claus, respectively, the trio has to keep their dysfunction — and Willie's raging alcoholism and womanizing — in check until Christmas Eve. Meanwhile, Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), a dim Santa-loving kid who clung to Willie in the first Bad Santa, is no less devoted as young adult, and he arrives in Chicago just in time to throw a wrench in the works.

Bad Santa 2 badly misses Zwigoff's deadpan tone and his genuine affinity for sour outcasts like Willie and Marcus, as well as the hidden millions who don't see Christmas as the most wonderful time of the year. It also misses two comic performers in the late John Ritter and Bernie Mac, whose reactions to Thornton had the crucial effect of varying a one-joke concept. Adding Bates to the cast is Bad Santa 2's one inspired touch, if only for the hilarious spectacle of watching her morph from a kindly, wholesome, storybook Mrs. Claus to a hard-drinking, tattoo-swaddled ex-con in one wardrobe change. Her lines are more or less interchangeable with Thornton's, but her robust presence is at least novel.

What's striking about Bad Santa 2 is how the same series of "politically incorrect" references — to lewd sex acts, to the disabled, to all things sacrosanct — could read as mean-spirited and offensive here where they didn't in the original film. The simplest explanation is Martin Amis' edict that "laughter always forgives," and Bad Santa 2 isn't funny. But intentionality matters, too. Zwigoff tapped into a reserve of genuine antipathy about the holiday season and its discontents, and his comic generosity made the experience feel shared and cathartic. The sequel is a long-in-the-works cash-in, with cynicism baked into every frame. From that stance, all the jokes punch down.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, where he's worked as a staff writer for over a decade. His reviews have also appeared in Time Out New York, City Pages, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, and The Hollywood Reporter. Along with other members of the A.V. Club staff, he co-authored the 2002 interview anthology The Tenacity Of the Cockroach and the new book Inventory, a collection of pop-culture lists.