BAD SANTA 2. Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Kathy Bates, Christina Hendricks. Directed by Mark Waters. 92 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong crude sexual humour, sex scenes and coarse language).
13 years after his first outing, Billy Bob Thornton is back as Willie Stokes, the alcoholic, foul-mouthed safe cracker with a thing for pulling jobs involving Santa costumes during the Yuletide season. What made the first film a mild success was its ability to balance Willie’s more debauched and acerbic tendencies with a bit of humanity, with the added guilty pleasure of seeing Thornton, an established actor well into middle age, delivering Willie’s filth-laden dialogue. Sadly, the sequel doesn’t work nearly as well – the cast is okay but the freshness isn’t there, the schmaltz barely lands, and it just isn’t funny or clever enough.
In the time since we left Willie, his life has gone from bad to worse, to the point where he is unsuccessfully trying to kill himself. It’s rock bottom, for a man whose life has never ventured far from the bottom. A lifeline comes in the form of a new job, hand delivered by now 21-year-old Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), a simple-minded, rotund orphan who maintains an ill-conceived affection for Willie after he taught Thurman self-defence in the previous film. He meets with Marcus (diminutive firecracker Tony Cox) about the job and agrees to head to Chicago to pull it off with him. The problem is, Marcus is freshly out of the slammer after serving a reduced sentence for trying to kill Willie during their last job together. Willie’s HR concerns don’t stop there – the mastermind behind this job is Sunny Stokes (Kathy Bates), Willie’s estranged mother who provides ample evidence that alcoholism and criminality are hereditary. Their reunion involves no emotional embrace – Willie greets Sunny with a loaded right hook. She responds, ‘You still hit like your father’. No points for guessing that the shaky script from Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross runs through several ridiculous crosses and double-crosses on its course – the fact that Willie doesn’t foresee the same developments is dubious.
The job is straightforward enough, albeit ostensibly unsavoury. Their target is a charity that helps kids in need, the kind of charity that has hundreds of costumed Santa Clauses roaming the streets with collection buckets come December. The organisation will have close to $2 million in cash sitting in a badly protected safe on Christmas Eve, and their annual Christmas concert should provide ample distraction for Willie to get safe cracking. Robbing this charity is apparently justified because its manager, Regent (Ryan Hansen), is stealing most of the money anyway. Regent is a crook of a different class to Willie and Co., wealthy, spoilt and chronically cheating on his beautiful wife Diane (Christina Hendricks). Diane, who does most of the legwork for the charity, takes pity on Willie when she bails him out after a drunken sidewalk brawl with another charity Santa. She takes him to an AA meeting but their relationship quickly becomes sexual, a doubtful turn that further complicates Willie’s feelings about the heist.
The final spice in the eggnog is Thurman, who dimly trails Willie to Chicago. Brett Kelly’s sweet and earnest performance as Thurman contrasts well with Thornton’s gruff, caustic turn, and although their bond is the heart of the film, the primary emotions feel more like pity and obligation than genuine empathy and love. Because this injection of sentiment doesn’t fly, the filth in which it’s set is elevated to the focus of the picture. It doesn’t hold up to the added pressure. ‘I don’t speak political correct’ says Sunny, and she’s not mincing her words. The film is aggressively vulgar and crude, and this approach has lost some of its shine in the years since ‘Bad Santa’, even if Kathy Bates makes for a natural addition to the Stokes family. Older people behaving badly is a comedy staple (‘Bad Santa’ could be held somewhat responsible for recent flicks like ‘Bad Grandpa’ and ‘Dirty Grandpa’), but it can’t sustain an entire feature without the smarts behind the first film, despite managing a couple of laughs. After a while, older people swearing doesn’t constitute a punchline any more.
In the end, director Mark Waters, responsible for the classic comedy ‘Mean Girls’, never seems to settle on the tone he’s after. ‘Bad Santa’ had a crook unlock a little bit of humanity, but ‘Bad Santa 2’ half-heartedly shoots for the same arc and misses. It’s a tired retread. ‘Bad Santa 2’ isn’t plain bad, but it’s definitely no ‘Bad Santa’ either.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 24.