For those with ears to hear, 2003’s “Bad Santa” was a wicked little Christmas carol. From idiosyncratic filmmaker Terry Zwigoff (“Ghost World”) and writing team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“I Love You Phillip Morris”), the Billy Bob Thornton heist comedy ignored the usual Ebenezer Scrooge-style stations of the cross to lesson-laden redemption and that journey’s attendant heartwarmth.
Its profane insults and defiant refusal of cheer were a cold, astringent slap. And while hardly inventing irreverence for the holiday, the film showed up to win as though no one told it that hating Christmas wasn’t actually a competitive sport.
It’s probably to be expected, then, that a movie that often gleefully and brashly critiqued the practice of corporately enforced happiness during the month of December would fall victim to a kind of corporate cruelty itself. Welcome to “Bad Santa 2,” another in a long line of Hollywood’s most cynical trick: the brand-exploiting do-over.
Willie (Thornton) is out of jail. Dumped by his ex (“Bad Santa” co-star Lauren Graham, absent here) and living in an Arizona motel room designed to break the human spirit, his two constants are alcoholism and Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly). The son figure Willie never successfully shook off, Thurman is now 21 and working in a sandwich shop. But his numerical age and height are all that’s changed. Thurman’s devotion to — and endless capacity to annoy — Willie is as cheerfully innocent as ever.
Marcus (Tony Cox), the ruthless elf to Willie’s bitter department store Santa, shows up, offering to cut Willie in on a big job in Chicago. Only upon arrival in Illinois does Willie learn that Marcus’s partner is Sunny (Kathy Bates), Willie’s equally despicable mother. The heist involves draining cash from a crooked homeless charity run by the smarmy Regent Hastings (Ryan Hansen, “Veronica Mars”). Hastings’s wife, Diane (Christina Hendricks), assigns Willie the job of sidewalk, bell-ringing Santa, and back into the red suit he goes, seething all the way.
A recovering alcoholic who recognizes her own kind, Diane takes Willie to an AA meeting. Then they have sex in an alley. And then in a Christmas tree lot. And then anywhere else they can find to do it, usually after he says something disgusting to her about her breasts. There’s no real reason for these pit stops of pleasure-free coitus; the film simply decides that sex near a dumpster is inherently funny.
Thurman shows up at the homeless shelter after hopping onto a bus wearing little more than Arizona-appropriate shorts, further complicating Willie’s efforts to pull off one last big job. Not that the curly-mopped naïf could help or hinder much of anything; these characters are bad at their chosen lives of crime, and, more importantly, inevitably drawn toward their own doom. If the heist itself weren’t a downward spiral toward failure, there’d be no plot at all.
Director Mark Waters (“Mean Girls”) clearly enjoys his cast and generously gives them space to relax into the familiarity of their characters, as if hoping they might be able to make sense of the script. That screenplay, credited to Shauna Cross (“Whip It”) and first-timer Johnny Rosenthal, feels tampered with, intruded upon, ham-strung to be more of the same, only less. In fact, it’s impossible to watch “Bad Santa 2” without getting the sense that people who knew how to do their jobs were studio-noted out of their minds and forced to run a futile obstacle course hampered by budget restrictions, shortened shooting schedules, and general carelessness.
It leans in to mean as hard as the first film, but to no purpose. Cruel comedy done well, as on HBO’s “Veep” or its cinematic predecessor, “In The Loop,” is like an electric jolt that becomes as narratively necessary as any action-based plot point. But here the jokes take on a rote quality, the vituperative insults and verbal jabs repeating themselves until it all sounds like an endless loop of dogs barking “Jingle Bells.”
The lone shining light is Brett Kelly. His Thurman isn’t merely a figure of whole-hearted goodness for Thornton to bounce off of; he is profoundly odd, a dare of a character that Kelly commits to with such steadfast weirdness that he can become borderline uncomfortable to watch. When entire rest of the film goes right, he goes left, and his on-screen moments are the funniest and most memorable. But Kelly’s inspired off-brand strangeness, jarringly comic as it is, is not enough to save “Bad Santa 2” from sinking.
Consumer culture’s distortion of Christmas, an ongoing source of anxiety and unhappiness for so many people, deserves to be spurned, ridiculed and turned into brutal comic fodder. But “Bad Santa 2” ignores its responsibility to that resistance. There is nothing to be gained here. No new, hilarious examples of how to hate your mother, hate your friends, hate all the people around you, hate children, hate that person who gives you desperate pity sex, hate Christmas, hate life.
“Bad Santa 2” is the re-gift that stops with you, the kind that winds up in a landfill. It’s tedious and lifeless, a waste of precious time, and ultimately, an exhausting example of what people should really be talking about when they decide to annoy you with rants about the War on Christmas.