In calling “Bad Santa 2” the feel-bad movie of the season, let me be clear: I don’t mean that it revives the rude-and-crude fun of the original hit, which turned the traditional Christmas film on its head. I mean the opposite. Trying to recapture that dark magic doesn’t work the second time around. This lazy sequel is a lump of coal in a dirty stocking.
Terry Zwigoff’s provocative 2003 film, produced and evidently script-polished by those master cynics Joel and Ethan Coen, created an unforgettable Scrooge character in Willie Stokes. He was a profane, lecherous, alcoholic safecracker who specialized in ripping off department stores while posing as their holiday St. Nick. It was a snarling star turn for Billy Bob Thornton in a role he was made for, making the blunt, vulgar, one-gag character into an offensively hilarious real person. Putting a kid on his lap was like telling the youngster to pet a strange pit bull.
Thornton is back in his grody Kris Kringle disguise, his highly combustible temper out of control just as before. This time, though, he’s giving his impressive all to rework jokes more than a dozen years past their expiration date. Rather than finding humor in breaking taboos, this version is an endless quest for the easiest way to a punch line.
In this follow-up helmed by Mark Waters, we reconnect with Willie while he is in a suicidal funk about his permanent position at the bottom of life’s barrel. Brett Kelly, who played Willie’s naive young sidekick Thurman Merman, returns as the early adulthood version, still the clueless innocent. Interrupting Willie’s effort to hang by a noose from his apartment’s ceiling fan, Thurman hands him a cash-filled parcel from his former crime partner Marcus (Tony Cox). Part olive branch and part bribe, the package promises Willie a shot at the proverbial one last job in Chicago, where the diminutive con man aims to snatch $2 million from a local charity.
The film’s power dive pauses for a bit as we are introduced to Willie’s much-loathed mother, Sunny (Kathy Bates), who is as sweet as a gingerbread cookie filled with razors. She apologizes for destroying his life, declaring that she masterminded the crime to make amends. On the other side of the scheme is Diane (Christina Hendricks), the wife of the charity’s director, with whom Willie wants to connect on a strictly physical level.
The new cast members keep the film from being wholly devoid of laughs. But their arrival is as far as the film tries to stretch itself, challenge viewers or even function as a well-honed movie. Waters gives “Bad Santa 2” the static look of a low-rated network sitcom, and the plot is so muddled it seems to have been stitched together from the dregs of multiple ditched drafts. Santa isn’t bad anymore, only sad.
Bad Santa 2
Rated: R for crude sexual content and language throughout, and some graphic nudity. Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates and Tony Cox. Director: Mark Water. Running time: 92 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.