By Justin Lowe, The Hollywood Reporter
Raunchy, rude, and politically incorrect, Bad Santa 2 arrives in time for the holidays like an outcast uncle making an impromptu visit. For those who’ve endured the long gap between Bad Santa movies like kids eagerly anticipating Christmas, this sequel brings it on like Saint Nick’s overstuffed bag of goodies, with plenty to entertain (and offend) everyone.
It’s been more than a dozen years since the introduction of Bad Santa’s obnoxiously unrepentant brand of holiday humor, but if anything, the follow-up — boasting two Academy Award-winners in Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates — outdoes its predecessor’s penchant for free-fire insult comedy. Fans could respond just as enthusiastically as they did in 2003, when the first release reaped $60 million domestically.
Thornton reprises his role as chronically unemployed lowlife crook Willie Soke, whose signature scam involves taking a seasonal job as a rent-a-Santa so he can rip off department stores from the inside. Now short on funds, out of alcohol, and scraping rock bottom yet again, Willie decides to put an end to his miserable life once and for all. Before he can tighten the noose, however, his self-anointed BFF Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) interrupts the procedure with the delivery of a mysterious package. Inside, Willie finds cash, a cell phone, and a note from Marcus (Tony Cox), his former and much-reviled partner in crime. Fresh out of the joint, Marcus has hatched a plan in concert with an undisclosed associate to knock over a target in Chicago for $2 million cash, but they’re going to need Willie’s safecracking skills to pull it off.
Reluctant to team up with Marcus again after his previous betrayal, but with complete destitution his only other option, Willie abandons Phoenix for the wintry Windy City, where he learns that their mark is a local charity plying Christmas cheer and collecting buckets of cash from streetside donations. Although he has no problem robbing an organization supporting the destitute, Willie refuses to work with Marcus’ partner, his very own chronically abusive, long-estranged ex-con mother Sunny Soke (Kathy Bates) — and even she only succeeds in persuading him by privately promising to cut Marcus out of his percentage.
Taking up their disguises as volunteers for the charity, Willie again dons a Santa costume while Marcus returns to his elf outfit and Sunny selects a Mrs. Santa getup so that they can case the group’s offices and locate the safe. One immediate obstacle is Diane (Christina Hendricks), the organization’s director, who develops an immediate, distinct dislike for Willie after he gets arrested following a very public drunken fistfight with another Santa. She only relents after he agrees to attend AA meetings with her, where his hard-luck story softens her stance, giving Willie the opportunity he’s been looking for to make a pass at her. With all their preparations finally in place, the trio gathers on Christmas Eve to execute Sunny’s plan, but back-stabbings, double-crosses, and deep-seated resentments are sure to unpredictably complicate the outcome.
Even if the script doesn’t outwardly acknowledge much sympathy for its deplorable characters, it’s not without its share of holiday sentimentality, particularly regarding Willie’s friendship with Thurman. With his cherubic face and 250-pound frame, the young innocent is Willie’s biggest fan; regardless of how reprehensibly the old reprobate behaves, Thurman is always supportive. Although original writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have moved on, their replacements Shauna Cross (What to Expect When You’re Expecting) and Johnny Rosenthal have thoroughly absorbed the franchise’s sensibility, refining the lead characters’ outsider identities with ruthless precision while introducing new and equally unique roles for the sequel.
Like Willie’s favorite whiskey, time has given Thornton the opportunity to improve on a character that was memorable to begin with, in a performance that incongruously earned him a Golden Globe nomination. “Misanthropic” is an inadequate description for Willie’s contempt for humanity, as well as his equally intense self-loathing, which provide the impetus for the film’s often hilariously inappropriate situations. Thornton fully invests himself in the role of a man so despicable that the only people willing to befriend him are those who are either prepared to con or kill him, including his horrific mother.
Sunny not only boasts an impressive rap sheet, but also possesses the compulsive inclination to tear down Willie, and anyone else within earshot, at every available opportunity. Bates takes to the role with bracing enthusiasm, delivering a nonstop stream of searingly scornful barbs and put-downs with a superior smirk.
Cox reprises his role as the height-challenged burglar elf with characteristic commitment while snappily repulsing a nonstop barrage of little-people insults and repeated romantic rejections. Hendricks (Mad Men) doesn’t hold back going toe-to-toe with Thornton, amusingly matching his raunchy comments and inexcusable behavior scene for scene.
Mark Waters (Mean Girls, Freaky Friday) channels some of the same manic energy that Terry Zwigoff so memorably brought to Bad Santa, while leveraging the comedic sensibility he’s honed on previous films. Even more inappropriate physical gags, foul-mouthed dialogue, and outrageous situations all contribute to raising the stakes, as Waters pushes the cast to amiably outdo the original. The creative team doesn’t skimp on the holiday trimmings either — from the awful sweaters to the overly angelic choir performances, they’ve overloaded the film with quirky Christmas spirit, even throwing in a raucous Santa convention at the finale.
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