Timing is everything. When Terry Zwigoff’s “Bad Santa” drunkenly blundered its way through so many tripwires of polite discourse back in 2003, its commitment to extreme foulness and political incorrectness had an undeniably bracing effect, especially considering it hit theaters within weeks of the likes of “Love Actually,” “Mona Lisa Smile,” and “Cheaper by the Dozen.”
Thirteen years later, we finally have a sequel, and even if new director Mark Waters had managed to strike the same delicate balance as his predecessor with “Bad Santa 2,” it’s hard to imagine a worse time for a film whose entire raison d’être is the willful violation of cultural norms and good taste than a period of history where the exact same things are occurring at the highest levels of government. Asking audiences to laugh during periods of strife can be noble; asking them to gasp-laugh at jokes about child abuse, racist epithets, people with disabilities, autism, and an amoral sex addict unfit for his profession who conspires to rob a charity … that can almost feel like cruelty.
Of course, it’s unfair to damn a film for the unintentional, unfortunate timing of its release date, but even if “Bad Santa 2” had been unleashed into a more neutral, apolitical climate, it still would have registered as a considerable disappointment — a weary, half-hearted affair that doesn’t even have the courage of its own nihilism. Billy Bob Thornton once again dons a vomit-streaked Santa suit to wreak Yuletide havoc as depressed, alcoholic thief Willie Soke, but the thrill of transgression is gone from his performance, and he mopes through the film even more vacant-eyed than his permanently hungover character ought to be.
Little has changed for Willie since he discovered a hidden shred of humanity in “Bad Santa’s” police shoot-out ending. He’s living a marginal existence in Phoenix, drinking heavily, and busy making occasional attempts to kill himself with common household items. His unwelcome tagalong mentee Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) is still tagging along, now 21 years old and still childlike enough to be the unaware target of Willie’s most caustic asides.
After botching his latest suicide attempt, Willie gets an unexpected visit from Marcus (Tony Cox), his diminutive friend-turned-betrayer, fresh out of prison with an idea for a heist that requires a safecracker with Santa experience. (Thornton, Kelly, and Cox are the only returning principals from the first film, though Lauren Graham does appear in a photo that is urinated upon.)
Reluctantly, Willie agrees to go along with Marcus, traveling to Chicago to scope out his potential mark: a charity run by the wife-husband team of saintly Diane (Christina Hendricks) and her shifty husband Regent (Ryan Hansen). Willie snags a gig as a Santa-suited street-corner fundraiser to case the joint, only to make an unpleasant discovery: His estranged mother Sunny (Kathy Bates, going all in) is a key part of the plot too, and somehow several degrees more vile than her son.
As scripted by Shauna Cross and Johnny Rosenthal, “Bad Santa 2” rarely dwells much on this heist narrative, and as lackadaisically assembled by director Waters, it’s easy to forget about it for long stretches of the film. In its place, the film offers a nonstop barrage of insults, degradation, and casual cruelty, without taking much time to make any of it particularly clever. It’s essentially a hangout movie populated exclusively with some of the worst people imaginable, rarely with any sort of solid scene-setting or straight-men to provide context.
Not coincidentally, the film achieves its biggest laughs when Willie is unleashed on unsuspecting pedestrians or forced to sit with a procession of kids; when it strands Willie, Sunny, and Marcus in a room with nothing to do but spew bile at each other, the scene can’t end soon enough. Nor can the film.