Oh boy. There’s nothing quite as middling or eyebrow-raising as a belated sequel, is there? 2003’s “Bad Santa” was a morbid, distasteful, apathetic middle-finger to more warm and fuzzy, politically correct holiday ventures and I absolutely love it. Upon hearing that a sequel was finally coming I was excited, although I knew it could fall into the same traps a lot of overdue sequels fall into (e.g., “Dumb and Dumber To,” “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”). Nevertheless, I was hopeful to see the returning characters again.
The result, Bad Santa 2, picks up 13 years after its predecessor, and opens to an even farther gone — jobless, penniless, womanless and comically suicidal — Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton, “The Judge”). The film even goes so far as to present a sound reason as to why Lauren Graham’s character “Sue” is absent from this follow-up. And though the explanation is unnecessary in the grand scheme of things, it is an appreciated note (as a child, whenever I would watch a sequel, I would always wonder why a prominent love interest was absent).
From there, Willie is then coaxed by his former partner Marcus (Tony Cox, “Date Movie”) for another heist, this time a charity run by Diane Hastings (Christina Hendricks, “The Neon Demon”), which coincidentally involves Willie’s mother Sunny (Kathy Bates, “Tammy”). What follows is a standard fare with none of the heart or initial shock value the original had. In that context, it’s no different than most sequels of the same ilk. But, on the other hand, I find it’s at least marginally better than the usual, but that doesn’t excuse it’s cheapness.
What the original excelled at was being as tragic as it was funny, especially in its ending. It was awkward and downright pathetic in its best moments. While Bad Santa 2 tries to attempt to do the same, its foundation is built entirely on half-measures. There is some potential in the relationship between Willie and his mother, especially with performers as proven as Thornton and Bates, and while it does have some genuine moments, it’s squandered by forced gags and a predictable end. There’s something to be found in Willie’s continued relationship with Thurman Merman (played again by Brett Kelly, “High School”), at least. Most of the film’s heart lies there, although it’s mostly a B-plot throughout.
Christina Hendricks is relegated to substitute for Graham, though they’re at least two very different characters. The heist also feels more involved and complex than the one in the original film. With all I’ve complained about, there has to be a reason I lean a little more positively than most might. That lies with Thornton himself. His performance and delivery is worth the price of admission alone. He’s still as distasteful as ever, but remains strangely endearing. Were this left to a less talented actor, everything would fall apart.
Bates is also a standout. While the relationship is undercooked, you can honestly tell she’s having a blast in this part. It’s no “Misery,” but it’s a chance to cut loose. Must Thurman be so similar to when he was a child, though? His role consistently walks that extremely thin line between comical and uncomfortable, and not in a good way. Has he not had a haircut or single wardrobe change in thirteen years? I’m not expecting deep lore here, it’s just somewhat distracting, even for a movie like this.
At the end of the day, “Bad Santa” was lightning in a bottle, and you can’t recreate that without diluting the formula in some aspect (they tried with another “Bad” movie, “Bad Teacher”). Bad Santa 2 isn’t in “Ghostbusters II” or “Blues Brothers 2000” territory, but it’s far from “Clerks II” as well. It is some good soul food for a cynic, all the same. Or a cheap, fast food-like alternative.