We’re mostly agreed these days that BAD SANTA is a timeless Christmas classic, right? I have friends and loved ones who it’s too mean for, and it got brutal critical reception at the time, done no favors by Miramax insisting on more ball punching and shit so the theatrical and “BADDER SANTA” cuts could fit some lowbrow comedy marketing strategy that must’ve worked for them on SCARY MOVIE or something. The superior director’s cut has been available for years now, and now I watch that and mourn the loss of one dumb joke from the theatrical ending:
But in any of its incarnations, BAD SANTA makes me laugh so much and channels so much of my most negative thoughts that it’s one of the few movies I can watch once a year without getting tired of it. Willie (Billy Bob Thornton, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE) is a funny asshole for the ages, a burnt out piece of shit full of self-loathing and even more full of loathing-others. His caustic wit and self-destructive behavior died for our sins, transforming humanity’s worst tendencies into wise ass Yuletide fuck yous both deserved and undeserved, but in a forum where no one can be hurt. He uses his asshole powers for good in his dealings with treacherous Marcus (who can dish it out too) or Bernie Mac’s quietly scheming “store dick.”
After so many viewings I sometimes find myself teary-eyed at Willie’s realization that Thurman (Brett Kelly, TRICK ‘R TREAT) cut himself while carving his weird Christmas gift, and at his attempt to return the favor before being gunned down by police. The smallness of the gesture to me makes it more authentic and in turn puts this jerk in line with more severe holiday transformations like Scrooge‘s or The Grinch’s.
Also, year round I will think about “Grandma, are you spry?” or “Do you want some sandwiches?” or “He’s dead, huh? I didn’t even know he was sick.”
So it was both tempting and worrisome when a sequel finally came along, without the participation of director Terry Zwigoff, screenwriters Glenn Ficarra & John Reque or treatment writers the Coen Brothers. Instead you got director Mark Waters (MEAN GIRLS was pretty good) and writers Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross (I love WHIP IT!). I think I read that the Entourage guy was a writer, but he’s just credited as an executive producer.
I hoped the cheesy commercials were misleading, and that the terrible reviews were wrong, like the first time around, but I wasn’t holding my breath. So I waited two years to pull off the Band-Aid. And now oh shit this Band-Aid is really old I hope it didn’t get infected.
(Due to previous experience I watched the theatrical cut, not unrated.)
The bad news: It sort of cheapens the world and characters of the original with some less grounded humor and too formulaic callbacks. The good news: It made me laugh, and even looked pretty nice (director of photography: Theo van de Sande, MIRACLE MILE, BLADE).
It’s better than I expected, for whatever that’s worth.
Willie is not in the better place he was in at the end of the first one. Things apparently didn’t work out with the sensitivity training counselor gig, or with Mrs. Santa’s sister (seen only in a photo) and he’s lonely-drinking and puking in alleys again. When Marcus, having finished exploring the mountains early, tries to bring him in on another job, he’s not happy. I mean, the guy tried to kill him and rip him off. But Willie eventually decides to do it, and comes to stake out a charity where he’ll be a Salvation Army style street Santa, and then is ambushed with the information that his estranged mom Sunny (Kathy Bates, STRAIGHT TIME) is part of the scheme.
Now, the idea of “he has a mom, and she’s bad too! And she does heists too! Ha ha!” is on the nose and corny. It retroactively makes the world of BAD SANTA lean heavier into cartoonishness. On the other hand it is funny to see Kathy Bates as a sweet Mrs. Santa who strips down to a tattooed sleeveless-shirt-wearing loud mouth asshole who calls her son “Shitstick.” Such is the way of BAD SANTA 2.
Also in that cheap-but-funny category is the return of Kelly as Thurman Merman. He’s 21, tall, has a deep voice, but acts exactly like he did as a little boy, so, on one hand it kinda shatters the illusion of this previously pitch-perfect character, the sweet, weird little boy who due to his isolation has failed to pick up knowledge and social skills. Now he’s a grown man who doesn’t know what sex is, so he seems more like a character in a Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler type of movie than a person. On the other hand, I did laugh, and feel happy for Kelly that he clearly is in on the joke and appreciates his place in film history.
You know who else we can say that about? Octavia Spencer, who since the first film had won an Academy Award for best supporting actress in THE HELP and became an A-list actress (nominated two more times just since this one). She really didn’t have to do a scene reprising Opal, the hooker who’s lightly annoyed by Willie’s anal sex, but she did. Respect.
The worst parts of the movie are when they most transparently rehash things from the first one, like the contrived montage of him having to be a department store Santa again. And the douchey, scamming boss of the charity (Ryan Hansen, FRIDAY THE 13TH remake) is a poor substitute for uptight John Ritter, who was so uniquely funny trying to couch his more-than-reasonable complaints about Willie’s job performance in defensive statements about not being a prude or not being discriminatory. He was a great foil because he wasn’t a bad person, and he was right. This guy leans a little closer to how they would do it in a POLICE ACADEMY or something.
But there are some laughs, mostly involving Willie, Marcus and Sunny hating and insulting each other. And I like the scene where they’re on the street looking for donations and turn their hatred on the people walking past them. And honestly it’s a joy to see Cox playing this role again. I mean I enjoy his performances as Ewoks and Hooter in CAPTAIN EO and etc., but it’s so rare that he gets to be a main character, or even have dialogue, and he’s very good at it.
So, as Mom might say of Willie in a charitable moment, BAD SANTA 2 never should’ve been made, but it could’ve been worse.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.