Review: Bad Santa 2

Director: Mark Waters

Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Christina Hendricks, Kathy Bates

Different types of movies serve different functions. Action blockbusters serve as pure escapism with their multi-million dollar firework displays. Documentaries and dramas depicting great social change ask us to reflect on the world around us, to challenge preconceived notions. Art house cinema provokes us to consider the medium itself; it’s abilities. In all cases, cinema of even moderate ambition is asking the audience to feel something.

And then there are movies made, well, just because.

Bad Santa 2 is such a movie. A suspiciously delayed sequel that nobody was particularly pining for, from it’s very beginning there’s an overwhelming sense of “that’ll do” about this product. There are no goals here. No checklist to work from. This is a modest little cash cow doing it’s thing for the economy with little risk involved. Tellingly, the original film’s writers and director are all absent. If this title has any ambition at all, it’s to be the kind of thing you put on Netflix in the middle of the afternoon on a Sunday because, if you happen to take an unexpected nap, it won’t matter.

None of which makes Bad Santa 2 particularly bad, just thoroughly, consistently unexceptional. Terry Zwigoff directed the first film coming off the back of Ghost World, and it shared some of that great project’s weird-USA vibe (a place rekindled with far greater success earlier this year by Todd Solondz with Weiner-Dog). Here, Mark Waters takes the baton and walks it casually to the finish line. Where that first film prized it’s politically incorrect off-colour humour as being in some way subversive to the norms of the festive movie, we’re now just presented ugliness as entertainment.

Honestly, it’s wearying trying to give a shit.

To the movie’s credit the cast are all back. Billy Bob Thornton has regressed as misanthrope Willie; still a raging alcoholic, bumming his way from one temporary job to another. He still knows borderline special needs case Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly); the series’ friendliest punching bag. And after not all that long Willie’s reunited with petulant dwarf Marcus (Tony Cox) and his own vile mother Sunny (Kathy Bates). Cue 90+ minutes of these characters throwing uninspired and repetitive insults at each other (usually about taking something in the ass) as they plot to steal money from a Chicago children’s charity (well, except Thurman, who is as blissfully naive as before).

A notable addition to the mix this time is Christina Hendricks as the charity’s erstwhile events manager Diane, a recovering alcoholic who steps in and out of the story for an improbable and demoralising (anti) ‘romantic’ subplot with Willie, one which goes absolutely nowhere. Hendricks, who one would like to think following Mad Men could probably pick and choose her projects at will, seems an odd fit for this, and she’s not particularly afforded the opportunity to shine. Elsewhere Jenny Zigrino at least recognises this as an opportunity for some screen time, and makes her relatively minor role as a security guard somewhat memorable for being the most energised present. Elsewhere, there’s a widespread sense of “for the pay cheque” about performances which goes some way to dampening the pay-off of even the most caustic lines of dialogue.

Zigrino’s achievement of something memorable is high praise in a movie which disappears like a galleon leaving port on a misty morning. There are occasionally moments of absurdity in Bad Santa 2 which wrestle it from torpor. Mainly these are accomplished by Kelly as Thurman, who is given a handful of incredulously weird things to say. His presence here, narratively, is all but meaningless, but without him this would’ve been a far drearier slog. There’s only so much of Sunny calling her son a “shit-stick” that one can take without asking serious self-reflective questions about the nature of existence.

Beating down on this movie is fairly easy as there’s not all that much to sing praises about, but it’s really not a disaster. A disaster would require some effort and energy at work, some sign that, however misguided, someone behind or in front of the camera had enough drive to properly, decisively steer this thing off course. That isn’t evident anywhere. No, Bad Santa 2 successfully avoids being terrible by never daring to be anything. You wanted more grouchy people swearing at each other? You got it. You wanted another half-assed yuletide heist? Here it is. Seasoned with a scattering of laughs, most of which were blown in the red band trailer.

Like Christmas Day itself, Bad Santa 2 is just a bit of a struggle; an often numbing experience which, not long after, doesn’t really feel like it happened at all. It’s enjoyable, not especially regrettable, but there’s probably something better to look forward to. And if my lack of enthusiasm for the festive period displeases you, at least it’s fittingly expressed here.

Score:  2

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