Movie Review: Bad Santa 2

Bad Santa 2 is now screening.

Bad Santa 2 (R16, 92mins) Directed by Mark Waters ★★★½

Back in 2003, Terry Zwigoff's original Bad Santa hit our movie screens like an ice-cold and refreshing blast of pure sulphuric acid.

Back then, the black comedy had somewhat fallen out of favour in the face of that weird American reflexive puritanism that we all occasionally have to yawn our way through.

In fact, although Bad Santa did do some boffo box office eventually, I remember it being marketed at the time as an ever-so-slightly arthouse offering. With the distributors presumably readying themselves for a backlash after audiences had seen and heard Billy Bob Thornton drinking, swearing, fornicating and more, in a film that resolutely and gleefully refused any sappy cop-outs or life-lessons learned. 

In the years since, the "gross-out comedy" has become a genre all of its own, with any number of films clogging up the multiplex and trying to out-do each other in just how far they will go to earn a laugh or a gasp. More often than not, these films just descend into a puerile boys'-club of dick jokes and stereotypes. And, sitting through them, I often think back to Bad Santa and wish that – just once in a while – somebody American could make another film that so satisfyingly tickled both your funny bone and your gag reflex.

And, Bad Santa 2 is not that film either. But – to give points for trying - it does at least bring back a few fond memories of the original, and in a couple of ways, maybe even tops it.

* Kathy Bates gets revved up as biker mom in 'Bad Santa 2'​
*Bad Santa 2 set for November 2016 release
* Kathy Bates has double mastectomy

Billy Bob Thornton's antics are greatly supported by a terrific turn from Kathy Bates in Bad Santa 2.

Billy Bob Thornton's antics are greatly supported by a terrific turn from Kathy Bates in Bad Santa 2.

Bad Santa 2 picks up the story in the present day. Against all the odds, safe cracker Willie Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) is still alive and eking out a living at whatever he can turn his hand to. Even more surprisingly, he is still in touch with Thurman Merman – the kid from the original, still played by Brett Kelly – now all grown up into a wildly disconcerting and blank eyed man-child with a line in conversational observation that veers from the surreal to the down-right deranged, often within a single sentence.

"Mummy is in heaven, with the baby Jesus and his talking walnut," is one of Thurman's more explicable pronouncements, which does at least serve to neatly write Willie's girlfriend Sue out of the narrative and leave the path clear for Christina Hendricks to hove across Willie's jaundiced eye.

Even better, Kathy Bates shows up, dressed like she's auditioning as an extra in a Sons of Anarchy party scene, dropping what we now quaintly refer to as "the F bomb" into every utterance and generally reclaiming the genre for women everywhere. Teamed with Thornton, in the service of a script which never backs away from a line or a gag, no matter how dark and misanthropic it might be, Bates is exactly the wildcard Bad Santa 2 needed to make it anything more than a pale imitation of the original.

They'll take away my reviewer's license if I try to tell you Bad Santa 2 is a good film. But for Bates' scene-stealing heroics, for Thornton, who has perfected a countenance and a delivery across the years that I can only describe as weaponised melancholy. And for a script that just won't quit, even while it's not making a lot of sense, I'm giving Bad Santa 2 a pass. 

Director Mark Waters (Mean Girls) definitely hasn't got the swagger, the insight, or the love of the outsider that Zwigoff ladled into the original. But, compared to pretty much every other film that has tried to make a buck out of being gross and not much else in the last decade, Bad Santa 2 is better than most.

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