Based on a story by the Coen Brothers, 2003's Bad Santa was a modest box-office hit when released that eventually conned its way into cult hit status when word spread of its relentless raunchy ways set against the backdrop of a kinda sorta redemption story for its antihero, Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton). After years of rumors that a sequel was on its way, Willie returns for Christmas 2016 with a story that may very well lack the freshness of the original film but still gives us enough of everything we loved about Willie, Marcus (Tony Cox) and that awesome Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) that Bad Santa 2 may very well be the perfect remedy for a worn out America that desperately needs to laugh.
As you may recall, Bad Santa ended with an unexpectedly happy ending for Willie. Marcus was sent off to the slammer for his ill-conceived doublecrossing of Willie, while Willie ended up with his "Fuck me, Santa" girlfriend and the endearing Thurman Merman.
Life was good.
Of course, there are no true happy endings and Bad Santa hits the restart button. Willie is still losing job after job, partly because he's still a drunken mess and partly because his eyes still wander toward any large breasted woman in the vicinity, and the girl is gone while Marcus has just been released from prison. Thurman? He's a nearly 21-year-old man-child now, whose immature ways are explained with a throwaway line about being "high functioning on the spectrum." When Marcus shows up and recruits Willie for yet another guaranteed big job, the understandably wary Willie can't resist. This heist is in Chicago and led by none other than Sunny Soke (Kathy Bates), Willie's long estranged mother who's also recently been released from prison and is working for Giving City, a megabucks Chicago charity run by Regent (Ryan Hansen) and Diane Hastings (Christina Hendricks), whose philanthropy may very well be deserving of a few major disclaimers.
The bad news, though it should be expected, is that Bad Santa 2 does, indeed, lack the freshness of its predecessor, a film that possessed the element of surprise as so far holiday motion pictures have had the balls to be so relentlessly raunchy with only hints of sentimentality to be found. While Bad Santa 2 lacks the freshness and, maybe even worse, tells a fairly predictable and formulaic story, the simple truth is that I still found myself laughing out loud at several points throughout the film and Thornton is still the master of playing both naughty and nice with equal conviction.
The genius stroke of Bad Santa 2 is the brilliant casting of Kathy Bates as Sunny Soke, whose ability to sell absolutely scathing one-liners with complete and utter sincerity while dressed as Mrs. Claus had me practically falling out of my seat laughing throughout the film. Thornton and Cox still have a rather remarkable comic chemistry, while the return of Brett Kelly as Thurman is another master stroke that works far better than you think it possibly could.
The film's secondary characters don't fare quite as well. With Bernie Mac and John Ritter, the original film's baddies, having passed away, the mantle for mayhem is handed down to Ryan Hansen's Regent, one half of Giving City's power duo whose philandering ways and slippery hands with the organization's cash make him easy to hate but not particularly interesting to follow. As his wife, Christina Hendricks is trying to pick up the slack left by Lauren Graham's absence but she's saddled with not much more to do than serve up faux naughtiness and dialogue that makes you long for either one more rewrite or a return of Graham.
There's something genuinely awesome and genuinely awful about a film in which the leading characters all are relentlessly cruel to one another yet, by film's end, either get what they deserve or dance on that line toward something resembling redemption. Willie Sokes is a character that Billy Bob Thornton completely owns, a bad guy who reminds us that even bad guys do good things, and even the rather non-stop onslaught of jokes about Marcus's height somehow seem like they're laughing with Marcus rather than at Marcus. While some may complain that Thurman's lightly referenced presence of autism is played for laughs, there's no denying that Thurman remains the film's most wholly embraced and sympathetic character and that, at least on some level, treating Thurman with kid gloves would have betrayed the film's rich honesty and demented glee.
If A Christmas Story were to have a cinematic incestuous cousin with a potty mouth and teabagging tendencies, odds are that cousin would look an awful lot like Bad Santa 2, a film where raunch meets redemption with a lot of laughs along the way.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic