R.I.P., Bad Santa 2, Dead After An Unnecessary Battle With Sequelitis
If nothing else, Bad Santa 2 will make you appreciate Bad Santa, which isn’t a bad thing. Bad Santa is a modern classic, a heartfelt love letter to perversion. Watching Bad Santa 2, you also realize what a delicate balance it required. It was a high concept and schticky, and on paper a third of the movie involved a drunk Santa and a dwarf elf (Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox) roasting each other. But it works, partly because Thornton is perfectly cast, and brings such honest grossness to his character that he’s consistently surprising even when you already know the gist of it all. It also has the magic of Brett Kelly as Thurman Merman, a gimmick character, but one of the most unique and effective gimmick characters in comedy history. His spooky, glass-eyed non-sequiturs (“It’s a wooden pickle”) are the perfect comedic foil for Thornton and Cox’s lounge-ready burn battles, an atmospheric jangle of long-pause absurdism floating above the thudding punch lines (and nut punches).
Moreover, the beauty of Bad Santa isn’t just the bad Santa himself, brilliant though he is, it’s the strange, noirish world Terry Zwigoff builds around him. A world of murderous dwarves, senile grandmas, neglected children, secret Santa fetishists, and all manner of scumbags, bastards, and defectives. It’s a delicate comedic ecosystem. And as the sequel shows, it takes only the smallest caterpillar queef to throw it off.
The sequel trades in director Zwigoff (a singular comedic voice — Art School Confidential would be a timeless classic if it hadn’t broken down in the third act) for Mark Waters (Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Mean Girls, Vampire Academy), and writers Glen Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You Phillip Morris, Bad News Bears) for Johnny Rosenthal (The Convention) and Shauna Cross (Whip It, What To Expect When You’re Expecting). Which, frankly, should already be cause for concern. But to its credit, Bad Santa 2‘s opening scenes manage to hit their beats, with a brutally dour meta introduction from Thornton (“Endings are bullshit anyway. Every time you think something’s ending it’s just the start of something even shittier”), and lines that are just sharp enough to transcend their inherent schtickyness. Like Octavia Spencer’s returning prostitute character cooing “Hurry up, I gotta take my grandson to ballet.”
There’s a depth of backstory to that one little throwaway line that makes you think maybe Bad Santa 2 can achieve the impossible, and become a comedy sequel worth watching. It doesn’t last. The caterpillar queefs start to add up and eventually the plants start wilting. Bad Santa 2 has a lot of micro problems. Brett Kelly commits admirably, but Thurman Merman’s goofy spaciness doesn’t work as a grown man, turning a singular child actor performance into a rejected Farrelly brothers’ man-child bit. It’s a fun move bringing back the same actor, but they don’t do anything with the character other than try to wring laughs out of a now ill-fitting shtick. The macro problem is that where Zwigoff built this dusky world of noir luridness (for a studio comedy, anyway), Waters basically sticks Thornton (still brilliant) into a bad sitcom. The pessimistic worldview is gone, replaced by your usual three-camera wordplay, only now with swear words.
Kathy Bates shows up as Thornton’s mom (she’s only seven years older in real life, which they solve by revealing that she had him when she was 13, not bad actually), and she’s fine, doing a play on the Ma Barker character from Naked Gun 33 1/3. This is stunt casting, and her dialogue is much more forced than anything in Bad Santa (she calls her son “shitstick,” because even as a boy, he was always trying to buttf*ck everything — mehhhh), but she’s mildly tolerable. The larger problem is that where Bad Santa had John Ritter and Bernie Mac elevating supporting roles (not to mention an Artie Lange cameo), Bad Santa 2 has Ryan Hansen as a corrupt CEO of a charity and Jeff Skowron as his dopey henchman, both of whom feel like villains from a direct-to-DVD kids movie about a dog. All the colorful swear words in the world can’t make up for failed world-building.