In early December, New York City is one of the loveliest places you can imagine, all aglow with lights and decorations for the holidays, air heavy with — yes — the smell of chestnuts roasting on an open fire (or a street cart). It’s cold, but the winter doldrums haven’t settled in. Usually it’s a joyful place.
Except one Saturday every year, when it becomes a red-and-green-hued hellscape. I speak, of course, of SantaCon.
On this darkest of days, the Santas (and various Mrs. Santas and elves and the odd Christmas tree or two) descend upon cities all over the country, including New York, whose hapless citizens may have been warned but probably forgot and are out buying vegetables or trying to grab a quiet drink with friends. They’re generally the hardest hit by the invasion of mostly but not entirely youngish people who dress up and drink heavily and walk around aimlessly getting drunker.
Like a cloud of white-bearded locusts, the Santas swarm the city and its bars. There is no reason. There is no escape. There is no mercy.
And this year, I was spurred to think of the impending torment they bring before it even arrived: as I sat in a theater watching Bad Santa 2.
That’s partly because the film concludes during a SantaCon in Chicago. But it’s mostly because the experience of watching Bad Santa 2 so closely mirrored my experience with SantaCons past. For people whose idea of fun is dressing up as Santa and getting wasted and being obnoxious with a bunch of strangers, it's a precise match of interests. For everyone else, it's kind of a nightmare.
Bad Santa 2 is Bad Santa, but without any of the good parts
The first Bad Santa, which came out 13 years ago, doesn't feel to me like quite the comic masterpiece some people make it out to be, but it's still on the "actually funny" side of comedy. It's strangely surreal and off-kilter, exhibiting the obvious influence of both its director, Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World, Crumb), and the Coen brothers, who serve as executive producers. Also, it has Lauren Graham, whose quirky comic timing, when combined with Billy Bob Thornton's gravelly Scrooge-meets-Grinch-meets-Satan act, can be kind of magical.
Bad Santa 2 lacks almost all of those magical elements — Lauren Graham, Zwigoff, and apparently any comic timing at all. The concept still sounds funny: Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is as terrible as ever, living a dissipate life in a sad little apartment, and his old con man sidekick Marcus (Tony Cox), who double-crossed him at the end of Bad Santa, rings him up with a new plan. They'll go to Chicago and rip off an organization that's basically the Salvation Army by way of a scheme that — as you might have guessed — involves Willie donning a Santa suit.
At the charity, Willie meets Diane (Christina Hendricks), who, along with her cheating husband, runs the organization. He takes a shine to her, and she, eventually, to him. In the meantime, though, we learn, along with Willie, that the rip-off operation Marcus pitched to Willie is actually being run by Willie's mother Sunny (Kathy Bates), who simply used Marcus to get Willie involved.
Sunny’s term of endearment for her son is "Shitstick"; the name stems from Willie’s propensity to do crass things with his genitals from an early age, as she explains with glee. The scene encapsulates what seems to be the movie's main comedic concept — "Isn't it funny that Kathy Bates could play a worse person than Billy Bob Thornton?" — and, for anyone who's watched Bates’s performance on American Horror Story, won't be much of a surprise.
Bad Santa 2 shows you need to do more than revive a funny character to make a funny movie
This is sort of a classic "I'll be home for Christmas" setup, with Sunny revealing a reason this might be her final heist to Willie, who feels a tiny pang of conscience. Yet the joke is seeing Sunny one-up Willie in terms of crassness, inappropriateness, and drinking; clearly Willie comes by his existence honestly, if you can say that.
All the off-kilter comedy of the original film is missing — there’s no random sandwich-making grandma, no Santa Claus fetish. Gone is the witty repartee between Willie and Marcus; in its place is tired back-and-forth insults that have lost their punch. The result feels a little bit like someone took the script for a kind of funny Hollywood Christmas heist movie, swapped out characters, and shoveled in the raunch.
Even by Bad Santa standards, this sequel is on another level in terms of blueness — and that’s before it adds a bunch of racially charged jokes, which aren't actually deployed with much humor and thus feel shocking for shock's sake. The humor of Bad Santa largely came from Willie mumbling insults in a Santa suit. In Bad Santa 2, he’s practically forced to play the straight man.
The problem may simply be that the original Bad Santa is essentially one long, weird comedy sketch with a terrible character at its center who doesn’t really change at all. (The heist parts are the weakest.) Reviving the character — especially more than a decade later — requires some new trick to freshen him up, and though the screenwriters were obviously counting on Sunny to be that trick, they erred in conceiving of her as Willie, but as a woman.
That said, the movie's best feature is the return of "the kid" (Brett Kelly), a.k.a. Thurman Merman, who is now 21 and a grown-up but retains roughly the same demeanor and intelligence level as in Bad Santa — not quite bright enough to wear a coat in wintry Chicago and still totally obsessed with Christmas. The movie picks up a bit when his character gets more screen time, partly because his wide-eyed sweetness means actual jokes get built around him. Innocence, oddly, provokes the funniest parts of the movie.
Alas, the rest of the movie is little more than a mashup of scatological humor and scenes like the one where Sunny graphically instructs her son how to properly screw a woman. Does that sound like the height of hilarity to you? Does one Santa beating up another while a crowd looks on seem like clever, original comedy? Are you in the mood for cruelty, insults, and humiliation? Then by all means, go see Bad Santa 2.
But if you loved the first movie for its weird nihilism — or believe that comedies are best when they don't just aim for the lowest common denominator — sit this one out. It's the end of the year. There are lots great movies in theaters. Go see one.
Bad Santa 2 opens in theaters on November 23.