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Movie Curiosities: Bad Santa 2

The Oscar season was brought to a screeching and premature halt this week, as Rogue One finally hits theaters in a few short days and only the worst dregs of cinema were put anywhere near it. Thus we finally get the chance to do some catching up.

So here we are with Bad Santa 2, which comes to us a good thirteen years after a movie that had no need of a sequel whatsoever. Bad Santa had an ending that was definitive by any measure, with character arcs that didn’t seem to have any viable way forward.

Moreover, the original film’s lasting success is in how it celebrated Christmas by creating a thoroughly unsympathetic character who represented the opposite of Christmas cheer, and then using him as the butt of so many jokes. Sort of like if “A Christmas Carol” kept shitting all over Scrooge instead of putting him through a redemptive arc. It’s a surprisingly good idea — especially in the strength of its execution — but hardly a concept that could sustain a second film.

As if in answer to these thoughts, Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton once again) opens the film with a voice-over basically saying that nothing really ends because everything leads to another crappy situation and the whole concept of a “happy ending” is bullshit. And then he botches a suicide attempt. Twice. Hilarious.

Enter Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly, and where the hell has he been these past ten years?), who’s somehow survived to reach drinking age. Even more improbably, he’s secured a job at a sandwich shop even though he doesn’t seem any more capable of independent thought or action than he was at age 8. All the while, Thurman is still imprinted onto Willie like a lost baby duckling (over a decade’s worth of vocal protests from the latter), which is how a message gets delivered from an old partner.

It’s Marcus (Tony Cox), last seen holding Willie at gunpoint, freshly given an early release from an overcrowded prison. Marcus comes to offer an olive branch in the form of a $2 million heist in Chicago. The news came by way of an anonymous client who’s a fan of their previous work. Without any better options, Willie naturally goes to Chicago. He leaves behind Thurman, who of course trails behind to arrive in time for the third act.

Little does Willie know that he’s been hired to rob a charity. And it turns out he’s not the least bit happy about this. (“No way these guys have $2 million!”) Even worse, the anonymous client turns out to be Sunny Soke (Kathy Bates), Willie’s mother, who’s been working under this particular charity since her last stint in prison ended a few months ago. Yes, it seems that Mama Soke is yet another criminal degenerate, maybe even more of a boozing asshole misanthrope than her son. So of course they hate each other’s guts.

To clarify, Willie hates his abusive and negligent criminal mother with an undying passion, most likely for her part in why Willie turned out to be a hate-filled piece of shit so useless that he can’t even kill himself properly. But for her part, Sunny seems to genuinely care for her son, albeit in her own crude and blunt way.

Yet it’s anyone’s guess how much of this is an act, and Willie of all people knows better than to trust her. And let’s not forget that time at the end of the first movie when Marcus almost murdered Willie, because those two sure as hell haven’t. So what we’ve got here is a team of three people, all of whom cannot trust each other for an instant. This is a marked contrast with the first movie, in which Willie and Marcus were more or less a reliable team up until the very end. It’s a welcome change that adds just enough of a new spin on the old formula.

What doesn’t work quite as well is the new mark. In the previous film, a huge part of the morality was in how Willie and Marcus kept robbing legitimate and well-intentioned businesses for their own material gain. This was a significant part of what made them unsympathetic protagonists and the antithesis of the Christmas spirit. But in this film, we quickly learn that our protagonists are stealing from a rich douchebag (Regent Hastings, played by Ryan Hansen) who’s embezzling the money from his own charity. So the morality here becomes a lot more murky. The themes aren’t nearly as clear and it’s much harder to root for either side because everyone involved is an asshole and nobody’s in a position to call anyone out on it.

Though we do have one possible exception: Diane Hastings, Regent’s wife, played by Christina Hendricks. At first, she seems like a more idealistic foil for Willie, providing him with the motivation to clean up his act and get in the Christmas spirit. Unfortunately, that’s dropped very quickly when Diane starts acting like a horny lunatic and actually helping him sabotage her own charity business, all for reasons that are barely even motivated by the plot, never mind the character.

The other de facto voice of morality is of course Thurman, ever the lovable dimwit. His act hasn’t changed much, even though a huge deal is made about how he’s 21 years old and needs to start learning how to care for himself. That might potentially have been a fascinating angle for some character development, if anything concrete was done with it. Instead, it seems that the film would rather Thurman stay as his own cluelessly naive and good-hearted self than turn into a cynical asshole like Willie, but it stops just short of outright saying that or doing anything with that message. Moreover, there’s still the fact that Thurman himself doesn’t really change all that much, and his bizarre attachment to Willie is still as mercurial as ever.

However, there is some potential here with the theme of family. A lot is made about how Willie is stuck with parents (his mother, more specifically) who are wretched people, yet he’s also stuck with Thurman. The difference is that one is family by blood and the other is family by choice. The notion of choosing whom we allow into our circle is a nicely poignant one, and of course the concept of family dovetails nicely with the holiday season. But again, it doesn’t land nearly as well as it should because it’s not quite clear enough why Willie and Thurman tolerate each others’ presence.

But getting back to the central heist plot, Willie and his associates are in a position where they’re ringing a bell and collecting for charity, Salvation Army-style. Thus we have another iconic use of Santa Claus and all the character stands for, ripe for Willie’s drunken and invective-loaded defamation in a neat twist on the previous film’s raison d’etre. Too bad the film abandons that halfway through in favor of more “kids on Santa’s lap” sequences, rehashing the original’s approach.

All of that aside, let’s get to the big question: Is the movie funny? Yes. Absolutely. Director Mark Waters, along with writers Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross (here taking the baton from Terry Zwigoff, Glenn Ficarra, and John Requa) prove themselves to be masters of the profane on par with their predecessors. Expletives, racial slurs, and tasteless jokes of all kind are deftly wielded, every one strategically placed and choreographed to maintain variety and land for the biggest laugh. What makes that even more impressive is that this feels like another one of those films in which everything was more or less improvised on the set and the funniest jokes were stitched together onscreen (there’s a moment or two of bad ADR as evidence of this).

Naturally, the performers are a huge part of why this works so well. All the returning players are every bit as solid now as they were in the previous film. Kathy Bates seems to be having the time of her life. Jenny Zigrino and Jeff Skowron are two supporting players, both comedy stars in the making. Octavia Spencer (of all people) turns in a memorable cameo role that I don’t dare spoil here. Christina Hendricks and Ryan Hansen are the weak links, but then, I’m not sure how much more anyone could’ve done with these characters.

Granted, this is shock humor through and through. This movie is all about being so over-the-top wrong that anyone in the audience will have no choice but to either bust out laughing or leave the theater in a rage. I’m sure you know which type you are.

Bad Santa 2 is a strange one in that all the pieces for a Bad Santa sequel are here, but it’s like they were put together in the wrong order. Bringing in Willie’s mother and using her to make a statement on family was a good idea, but it was just a hair less developed than it needed to be. Willie in a Santa suit working as a charity bell-ringer had potential, if only it wasn’t abandoned after two scenes. It makes perfect sense that our unsympathetic protagonists would rob a charity, but then the filmmakers had to throw the morality all out of whack by making the charity into unsympathetic antagonists. Thurman confronting his adult status (something that can’t possibly be put off any longer) had all sorts of potential, if only anything was really done with that concept aside from a few sex jokes.

Just about the only new concept that works perfectly is the notion of a three-person heist in which Willie gets back together with his cohorts and none of them trust each other. Any or all of the other concepts might have been given just enough screen time and development to work, if only the film didn’t needlessly fall back on the first movie’s conceit of Willie embarrassing himself while kids sit on his lap. Though that’s admittedly one of the funnier stretches in the picture.

It’s undeniably a funny movie on its own merit, yet so much of it ties back to the first film — and fails to live up to the first film — that it doesn’t stand on its own merit. So if you liked the first movie, you should definitely think about giving this a look on DVD. If you love raunchy humor, start with the first film before giving this a watch. Everyone else can safely give this a skip.

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