The opening of Bad Santa 2 feels exactly right. The first movie gave its degenerate, safe-cracking mall Santa a glimmer of a happy ending, an absurd outcome for a man who had screwed, robbed, boozed, and cursed his way across a large swath of the Phoenix metro area. 13 years later, Bad Santa 2 finds its antihero back at rock bottom; alone, drunk, and broke. In a despairing voiceover, Billy Bob Thornton croaks out a treatise on the lack of happy endings in real life — or any endings at all. Life, his Willie Soke muses, just goes on and on, constantly and consistently sucking forever. Then Willie writes a suicide note on an old pizza box and sticks his head in an oven.

This is the only Bad Santa sequel that makes sense, and if the movie had ended there, I would have called it a masterpiece of a short film. But Willie fails his suicide attempt just like he’s failed at pretty much everything else in his wretched existence, and pretty soon he’s drawn back into another elaborate Christmas-themed heist with his old partner-in-crime Marcus (Tony Cox). From there the movie backs off from the darkness and settles in a familiar groove, rehashing the first film in mostly forgettable but not entirely unpleasant fashion.

Marcus’ plan involves robbing from a corrupt Chicago charity run by Christina Hendricks’ altruistic Diane and her prick of a husband (Ryan Hansen). Their Giving City is a riff on the Salvation Army and its legion of bell-ringing Santas; Marcus plans to infiltrate the organization and then make off with the contents of the charity’s safe during a Christmas concert. The third member of Marcus’ gang, much to Willie’s surprise, is Willie’s estranged mother Sunny (Kathy Bates). She shuffles through the charity’s headquarters in cardigan sweaters and giant glasses, looking like she just stepped out of a Norman Rockwell Christmas painting. But back at her dingy apartment, she peels off the disguise to reveal giant tattoos, stained tank tops, and a mouth filthy enough to rival her sleazy son. Every angle of this hate triangle is mean and nasty, but this trio of criminals will need to coexist until Christmas if they’re going to pull off their robbery and get away with a couple million bucks.

Bates clearly relishes the chance to cut loose as a character with absolutely no sense of boundaries (in one scene Willie and Marcus walk in on her sitting on the toilet with the bathroom door open so she won’t miss a moment of The Bachelor season finale). Bates makes a convincing mother for our amoral Santa, even if she’s just seven years older than Thornton (the movie claims Sunny gave birth to Willie when she was 13). And Thornton and Cox pick up their amusingly combative chemistry right where they left off 13 years ago. The main stars deliver a couple decent laughs.

But the original Bad Santa had a deep bench of oddballs and misfits to bounce off its title character, like John Ritter’s squeamish mall manager, Lauren Graham’s feisty Santa fetishist, Bernie Mac’s scheming security chief, and Lauren Tom’s ruthless Lois, Marcus’ materialistic wife. Bates notwithstanding, Bad Santa 2’s supporting cast just isn’t up to snuff. Hendricks’ role is thankless and the stand-in for Bernie Mac’s Gil, a quirky security guard named Dorfman (Jeff Skowron), never finds his footing. The sequel also misses the sense of grit and desperation that director Terry Zwigoff brought to the first film. His replacement, Mean Girls director Mark Waters, goes for a broader tone (at least after the magnificently bleak opening) with mixed results.

Shifting Willie and Marcus from schemes involving mall Santas to one involving Salvation Army Santas lets the movie keep its holiday setting, but it also keeps Thornton away from interactions with children, whose horrified faces at his debauched antics formed much of the comedic spine of the original. Thornton’s main foil from Bad Santa, a sweet but dim-witted boy named Thurman (Brett Kelly), returns for Bad Santa 2, but now he’s a grown man, at least physically; mentally, he’s still not quite playing with a full deck. Thornton and Kelly have a few sweet moments (sweet by Bad Santa standards, which means they involve slightly less alcohol and profanity than the others) but their dynamic isn’t nearly as funny as disgusting adult/innocent adult as it was earlier as disgusting adult/innocent kid.

The world of 2016 is a whole lot more politically correct than the one that gave us the first Bad Santa, which would suggest that there could have been a way to make a button-pushing sequel that really challenged viewers with tasteless humor. A few racially charged lines of dialogue aside, though, Bad Santa 2 doesn’t go that route, and it recaptures little of the jaw-dropping shocks generated by the original.

That’s probably inevitable by the very nature of sequels. But Waters and writers Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross don’t try to distance themselves from the first Santa; instead they recreate a lot of its scenes and gags, sometimes beat for beat. There’s a scene where Willie screams at someone while he’s eating and food flies from his mouth. There’s a sequence where Marcus and Willie get into a mismatched fist fight. And there’s a graphic sex scene (or two or three) in a public place. It’s hard to shock people, even with edgy language and frank sexuality, when you’re reproducing something everyone’s seen before.

Even the outcome isn’t that surprising. The reality is Bad Santa shouldn’t have worked once. A Christmas movie with genuine heart and sex jokes? Pulling that off was impossible. Pulling it off twice would have been a bona fide Christmas miracle.


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