The central flaw of Christmas-themed movies is quite simple; although romantic comedies can be enjoyed outside of Valentine’s Day and horror movies don’t have to be restricted to Halloween viewings, festive oriented fluff becomes irrelevant from midnight on Boxing Day until the following November. Audiences may still flock to see some hyper violent slasher movie on November 1st, but on Boxing Day, everybody is so fatigued after the arduous Christmas period that cinemas tend to remove all holiday movies from their line-ups in a manner that would be unnecessary for films set on other important cultural dates.
There are Christmas movies that can be enjoyed at any period of the year – but that may be because both It’s a Wonderful Life and Die Hard were originally released as would-be summer blockbusters upon their initial release dates. As for movies released on the dwindling weeks leading up to December 25th, it is blatantly obvious that they are nothing more than cheap festive cash-ins. With every year that passes, this looks like an increasingly pointless business operation on behalf of major studios, due to slim box office takings that prove festive movies are the biggest studio turkeys every Christmas.
A Cheap and Cheerless Cash-in
Bad Santa 2 is a poorly conceived cash-in that has fortunately backfired in every conceivable way. Now that the festive season is over and done with and the foul stench of this dispiriting sequel to a modern Christmas classic has been removed from multiplexes worldwide, it couldn’t be simpler to see why audiences weren’t even interested.
The original Bad Santa, released back in 2003, was a hilarious dark comedy that holds up to repeat viewings; it introduces an amoral, suicidal, alcoholic anti-hero (played by Billy Bob Thornton), and gives him a believable redemption without softening the movie’s darkest edges. It is equally a middle finger to the forced merriment of this time of year and a wholehearted celebration of traditional values, all buried beneath foul-mouthed comedy so inspired it feels oddly poetic.
Released fourteen years after the original, Bad Santa 2 reintroduces Willie as the same old depressed alcoholic, who still has a somewhat inexplicable friendship with the young child who forcibly befriended him in the prior film (Brett Kelly). His former partner in crime Marcus (Tony Cox) has just been released from jail and has heard about a new criminal scam in Chicago that can get them back into their Santa costumes. Agreeing to the con, Willie arrives in the windy city to find that they are not only going to be stealing from a charity (whose co-founder is played by Christina Hendricks in a role that screams “please fire my agent”), but that it was all organised by his estranged mother (Kathy Bates).
For Bad Santa 2, the original creative team have no involvement in the project, which means the tightrope balance of mainstream humour and edgy indie film spirit is all but absent. Replacing director Terry Zwigoff and an insanely talented screenwriting team that included Joel and Ethan Coen, we have director Mark Waters. He isn’t untalented when it comes to making comedy movies, being responsible for bringing Mean Girls to the screen – but when it comes to making R-rated movies, he has little experience. His filmography is littered with family projects, from the Freaky Friday remake to Mr Popper’s Penguins, which ensures that he goes overboard with the faux-edginess here, taking every opportunity to display wannabe transgressive, politically incorrect humour that his other projects don’t allow.
Fails to understand what made the original so special
Nobody in the creative team appears to have seen the original Bad Santa, as they have inexplicably transformed Willie from being a low-life criminal with a darkened worldview into an entirely unlikable nihilist with a penchant for throwing racist, misogynistic and homophobic musings into casual conversation. I say the term “musings” as opposed to jokes, as the crushing mean-spiritedness of every other line of dialogue has an unfortunately nasty aftertaste in the current political climate.
Regardless of what is going on in the real world, Bad Santa 2’s humour would remain devoid of laughs. It makes the common sequel mistake of assuming that what audiences liked about the original film was solely the dark comedy, so doubles down on “edgy” jokes in expense of anything more meaningful. Because what is edgier than a film where all the punchlines are at the expense of everybody who isn’t a straight white man?
Of course, Willie is still treated with disdain, but the film seems nihilistic for intruding on his pain. Within the first ten minutes, we even get a comedy montage of him trying to kill himself, which somehow doesn’t even register as the most misjudged idea in a film that takes pride in brain-dead offence. Instead of being a humorous takedown of Christmas culture, in many places the film feels largely intended to suck any seasonal joy out of the audience. The third act denouement, which fails to replicate the heart of the original as it introduces emotional arcs half-heartedly, feels more cynical than the Christmas movies it is parodying.
Instead of being a satirical jab at the season keeping in line with the rest of the film, Bad Santa 2 becomes tonally awkward as it preaches many festive virtues, with a cheery song blasting in the background. The original film managed to be more heartfelt and still didn’t betray the black humour in its most emotional moments – this feels like a mishmash of tones that don’t gel well together, making it hard to care about the emotional conflicts of characters who are unlikable by design.
Bad Santa 2 is a cynical cash-in that is about as welcome as a lump of coal in your festive stocking. Defined by a depressing nihilism, this is the antithesis to the subversive joy of the original, existing only to make the original seem significantly better by default.
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Bad Santa 2 will be released on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD in 2017.