Even at its most vulgar and juvenile, Bad Santa 2 captures our cultural moment’s zeitgeist of fear, anger, and loathing. The film recognizes the greed and consumerism that underlines Christmas in America, using its surface nihilism to lull the audience into a sense of cynical immunity to the usual Christmas banalities before revealing its true message: that blue-collar ne’er-do-wells on the margins of society are very much capable of grace.
Mark Waters’s sequel to Bad Santa commences with Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) back at rock-bottom, with only his idolatrous friend, Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), by his side. The curly haired Thurman, still overweight and convinced that Willie is Santa Claus, is a man-child with the crystalline singing voice of a prepubescent boy and the softheaded naïveté of a shut-in. They’re lured into another burglary scheme by Willie’s erstwhile accomplice, Marcus (Tony Cox), and estranged mother, Sunny (Kathy Bates), a seasoned criminal who introduced Willie to a life of crime before abandoning him. Together they make up an alternative family even more blasphemous than the one depicted in Terry Zwigoff’s original film, suggesting caricatures of the figures commonly associated with nativity scenes and Claus’s workshop.
Bad Santa 2 treats its have-nots like flesh-and-blood humans—which is to say, neither as angels nor demons, as they’re often portrayed in holiday films. They sin and are sinned against, driven by a desire to sate their basest urges and gnawed by a sense of duty to their higher instincts. The filmmakers focus on Willie’s lust for sex and booze not to create a vicarious thrill for the audience, but to reveal his soul’s emptiness and the fear of human connection that drives him toward self-destruction. Like Willy Loman, he’s an everyman, no better or worse than any other, using his dreams to buttress the growing failure of his life, which threatens to consume him at every moment.
Throughout, Thornton’s lean yet saggy body and weather-beaten smile endow Willie with the perfect combination of charming goodwill and cutthroat self-interest. Sunny, meanwhile, suggests a weird combination of the Madonna, Mrs. Claus, and a Hell’s Angel. Bates’s performance, carefully calibrated between vulgarity and pathos, brings great depth to this tattooed fury with a butch crew cut—a rough exterior that hides a wellspring of suffering. Sunny’s failing health over the course of the film makes her seem like she’s taking the sins of humanity upon her shoulders, which gives a striking and unusual tragic dimension to a film filled with wall-to-wall sex jokes.
Both a potent rendering of and cure for the holiday blues, Bad Santa 2 shows that even the most hopeless situations can be remedied and that just about anyone is capable of redemption. Most remarkable is how true it remains to its politically incorrect sense of humor, refusing to temper its crude realism for fear of giving offense, all while creating a sense of total inclusion in its vision of redemption, where all are welcome, regardless of their class, race, or stature. Willie, an incorrigible yet ultimately softhearted dirt bag, is a universal scapegoat, and his salvation provides hope for us all.