If the 2003 Christmas-themed comedy “Bad Santa” was, as critic Stephen Hunter put it, “demographically engineered for the smallest interest group in America: those who hate Christmas,” then its sequel appears to have been made by an even smaller demographic: those who don’t understand why people loved the original.
“Bad Santa 2” insults the intelligence and taste of the first film’s audience by including all of the biliousness and vulgarity of the first film, but none – or precious little – of its scabrous joie de vivre.
Like Willie Soke, Billy Bob Thornton’s lecherous, larcenous, alcoholic and nearly amoral department-store Santa – now 13 years older, but no less of a lech and a lush, if seemingly a lot worse for wear – the film has the air of a once vital but now senescent reprobate. Like the Ghost of Christmas Past, it isn’t transgressive so much as creakily evocative of dimly recalled transgressions.
“Remember when we did that?” the movie seems to say. “Well, watch this – ow, my lumbago!”
Set in Chicago, “Bad Santa 2” reteams Willie with his partner in crime Marcus (Tony Cox) for a heist of $2 million from a Salvation Army-esque charity. They add a third conspirator in the form of Willie’s foul-mouthed, tattooed mother (Kathy Bates). Never mind that Bates is only seven years older than Thornton, a disconcerting bit of casting that writers Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross try to explain away with a crack about how she gave birth to him while in juvenile detention. Willie actually seems older than his mom, who at least manifests a certain vitality sorely lacking in Thornton’s Willie, who shuffles gingerly through the action, mostly consisting of what might euphemistically be called politically incorrect wisecracks.
Jokes about race, women’s anatomy and little people are sprinkled, like rancid pepper, over a script that depends on the inherent humor of cuss words. Not that coarse language can’t be funny, but here it appears to be evidence of a toxic mix of laziness and sociopathy, not defiance of seasonal propriety. I’m all for turning Christmas-movie clichés on their head, but half the jokes sound like they were written by Donald Trump, on a bus, using Billy Bush as a sounding board.
The one concession to cockle-warming is the reappearance of Brett Kelly as Thurman Merman, the little boy whose appearance in “Bad Santa” helped humanize Willie. Now 21, his character alternates between merely grating and cringe-inducing, as when Willie tries to help Thurman lose his virginity to a prostitute played by Octavia Spencer, who looks like she hopes no one will recognize her.
That impulse informs “Bad Santa 2.” You can dress it up in a fake beard and a ratty red suit, but it still ain’t the original.