“Happy endings are bullshit,” says Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) at the beginning of “Bad Santa 2,” and don’t we know it. A disheveled, alcoholic, womanizing criminal in a Santa suit may be just the face to epitomize our troubled times, but that doesn’t justify this thinly conceived sequel to 2003’s delightfully mean-spirited black comedy, which plays like an idiot fan tribute to the original.
Trading brains for repetition, “Bad Santa 2” rejects the ambiguous finale of the first installment, which left viewers wondering if the giddy happy ending was real or imagined. Did Willie die? Go to jail? Or actually find some modicum of domestic bliss? Directed by Terry Zwigoff from a wry script by Glenn Requa and John Ficarra — based on an original idea floated by the Coen brothers — “Bad Santa” existed within the bad vibes of its obnoxious antihero; you could even feel sorry for him. The oddly hopeful finale suggested that no matter what actually happened to Willie by the end, he’d reached a point where he recognized the possibility of a better life.
“Bad Santa 2” is a kick in the balls to complicated storytelling, one that basically says, Fuck all that smart shit. It turns out the first movie’s ending was real but impermanent: Willie’s only gotten worse, having dropped his lady friend and keeping his distance from the peculiar naif Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), who has grown from bright-eyed kid to young adult but otherwise remains unchanged. In the opening minute, he gawks from the driver’s seat at a breast-feeding woman and promptly gets into a car crash, losing his valet gig and left to contemplate his next move. Premise reboot complete.
Wallowing in his grimy apartment, Willie’s visited by the ever-idealistic Thurman, who seems eager to lose his virginity even though he doesn’t know what that means. Willie brings him a prostitute and attempts to talk him through the kid’s first time. The scene lingers on the edge of being funny (“If you see something that looks like Chinese food, don’t eat it”), but registers as a half-formed variation on earlier material. That becomes a pattern: “Bad Santa 2” barrels through the original’s concept as if the underlying goal were to eradicate it and start from scratch.
Cue the arrival of Marcus (Tony Cox), the foul-mouthed little person who betrayed Willie in the midst of the heist in the first film before running away. When he inexplicably draws Willie back into one more job, the third crew member is Willie’s equally crude mother, Sunny Sokes (Kathy Bates). She also provides the movie’s sole bright spot. Clearly relishing the opportunity to run her mouth, Bates plays Sunny with a relentless vulgarity that registers as her most shocking turn since “Misery.” Dragging the television with her to the toilet and recalling grotesque tales of motherhood involving vomit, she goes a long way toward expanding Willie’s lineage and explaining how he got so screwed up.
This measly expansion of Willie’s biography doesn’t counterbalance the sitcom vignettes that define the story’s diminishing returns. Once again, the screenplay (by Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross) goes out of its way to put terrible lines in its characters’ mouths and dares viewers to laugh. However, it’s gotten harder to take this form of jarring lowbrow humor, especially when it serves no purpose beyond shock value.
You have to wonder who’s supposed to laugh when Willie dumps on Marcus by telling him that African-American little people should be sterilized to avoid a “negro Land of Oz.” Later, Marcus is rejected by a would-be lover because “some of the lobsters we had were bigger than you.” And then there’s the especially ill-timed bit when Willie asserts, “I bet that pussy’s got lips like an orangutan.”
He’s talking about Diane (Christina Hendricks), the seemingly cleaned-up charity worker Willie encounters when he signs up as part of their scheme. It doesn’t take long for Diane to wind up as little more than a sex-addicted airhead, and she’s not the only one. Women are inexplicably drawn to nasty fuck sessions with Willie, who barely lifts a finger to land the opportunities. How this grotesque mess of a man winds up harboring such game could be a grand joke, but “Bad Santa 2” plays it straight. Everyone’s turned on by a gnarly dude in a Santa outfit, right? If you can’t answer that question with a shrug, “Bad Santa 2” will confound you in parts, and enrage you a lot.
Every now and then, the movie’s imitative approach yields a satisfying window into the feel-bad holiday movie concept that made the first one such a twisted delight. When Willie watches Thurman perform in a holiday choir, it provides a fleeting glimpse of the warm bond they share, and the possibility that this angry white man harbors real emotions. A heist montage set to “Silent Night” effectively taps into the way these characters take advantage of a season defined by the good vibes that make people vulnerable.
But again: We’ve been here before. Gliding along on cinematographer Theo Van Sande’s brightly lit images and Thorton’s iconic glare, “Bad Santa 2” pays lip-service to original’s appeal without bothering to put a new spin on it. The original delved into the essence of a great dark joke, which has the power to make you laugh despite its deviance. “Bad Santa 2,” on the other hand, just trolls for anger. It’s the movie equivalent of the schoolyard bully who thinks he’s hot shit.
Nevertheless, the arrival of “Bad Santa 2” at the tail-end of a bruising election season — with much of the country either terrified or resigned to the horrors around the corner — has a serendipitous ring to it. The shift in mood in mainstream cinema couldn’t be clearer: Earlier this year, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” struck a progressive note about the rise of feminist values, while “Bad Santa 2” says bad times and bad people don’t change. It’s a harsh wakeup call to a world steeped in mediocrity, but doesn’t have much to say about it that we didn’t already know.
“Bad Santa 2” opens theatrically on November 23.