Bad Santa 2—Back in 2003, I was in the midst of what I regarded as a particularly un-merry holiday season. I saw Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa, and laughed so hard that I thought I might need medical attention. It wasn’t an especially well-made movie, but its childish upending of clichéd holiday wholesomeness essentially saved Christmas for me that year.
Billy Bob Thornton returns in this 13-years-belated sequel, again as Willie, a drunken, depressive, fetishistic safecracker who uses a Santa costume as his front. Here he’s pressed into service by his diminutive former accomplice Marcus (Tony Cox), donning the costume again to rob a fraudulent charity in Chicago. The mastermind—if that’s the word—behind the plot is Willie’s loathed mother Sunny (Kathy Bates).
Few would suggest that this episodic, clumsily-structured caper farce is crackerjack moviemaking. It relies on a ridiculously easy comedic strategy—set up saccharine Christmas imagery and music and blow raspberries at it.
So sure, Bad Santa 2 isn’t a great movie. But Billy Bob Thornton is a great movie star. I don’t just mean he’s a great actor, though he is; he also has the authoritative presence of a true star. Watching him here isn’t just watching a drawly guy spout vile obscenity and epithets—amusing enough for a while, but only for a while—it’s also getting a taste of the vast, defeated bleakness of outlook from which this invective arises.
His characterization carries a whisper of the tragic to it, and indeed this might take over and spoil the fun if it weren’t for Willie’s strange magnetism, sexual and otherwise. In the first movie he was irresistible to Lauren Graham; here his romantic—if that’s the word—interest is Christina Hendricks. So how sorry for him can we feel?
Besides, like the original, Bad Santa 2 is every bit as sentimental as any Christmas movie. We’re meant to see that the true source of Willie’s misery is that, at bottom, he’s a thoroughly decent-hearted fellow.
The journeyman director, Mark Waters, moves things along with reasonable efficiency. Bates is formidable as ever as Sunny. Cox, Octavia Spencer and Brett Kelly—as the oddball Thurman Merman—are amusing in reprised roles from the original. But Thornton is the real show. If, for whatever reason, you aren’t feeling as festive this year as tradition demands, Bad Santa 2 might help you vent some of your negativity. Just don’t take the kiddies.