This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
It occurs to me that 2003’s “Bad Santa” inadvertently provided the connective tissue between the genuinely subversive comedies of John Waters and the slack, fake-transgressive gross-out comedies currently in vogue, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” and the films of the “Hangover” franchise among them. Coming a long 13 years after the original, “Bad Santa 2” provides, perhaps inadvertently, some backup evidence for my thesis.
The original “Bad Santa,” starring Billy Bob Thornton in the career-high title role (the character’s actual name is Willie Stokes, but few in the movie or outside of it ever actually call him that), was a scrappy indie movie, directed by Terry Zwigoff and executive produced by Joel and Ethan Coen, a deliberately nasty fusion of heist picture and black comedy with a touch of redemptive storytelling that elevated it to nearly-humanist. Albeit in a very cranky way. While the movie did not cross the $100-million box office mark domestically, it did a little better than what you’d call a cult movie.
The “Bad Santa” brand is strong in other places that count. Just look at the cast for the sequel: Thornton, Tony Cox, and poor Brett Kelly (who played the sad but highly unappealing role of snotnose kid Thurman Merman) are back, and newbies include such luminaries as Kathy Bates and Christina Hendricks. Octavia Spencer shows up for a cameo, playing a hooker who is hired to divest now-21-year-old-Thurman of his “cherry.” Bob Dylan’s version of “Winter Wonderland” appears on the soundtrack. Think about it: Bob Dylan can’t be bothered to go to Sweden to pick up his Nobel Prize, but he’ll let the “Bad Santa” sequel use one of his songs.
This sequel is directed by Mark Waters, whose “Mean Girls” strongly suggested that he knows funny. His subsequent filmography, which includes “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” strongly suggests lost mojo. It’s clear from the get-go here that Waters is not so strong on areas in which Zwigoff excelled, like credible characterization. But for the demands of this particular movie at this particular time, here he doesn’t really have to be.