Thursday, 1 December 2016

Movie Review: Bad Santa 2 (2016)



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Over many decades of cynicism burrowing their way deeper into the collective subconscious, what was once the most wonderful time of the year is now incredibly demented. Yuletide cheer has given way to soaking those festive colours in many darker shades, resulting in a time of year that is joyous but for entirely different reasons and for entirely different people than it was originally intended. It’s with this in mind that Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa might be the most perfect representation of our incredibly warped and yet still loving attitude towards Christmas. Dark and bitter with a foul-mouthed and violent demeanour, Billy Bob Thornton’s titular character brought a whole new kind of Christmas champion to mainstream attention, one that was more likely to smack the baby Jesus than bring it any gifts. It was delightfully demented without really sacrificing the sense of goodwill associated with the holiday (not entirely, at least) and made for a quite enjoyable watch, especially around this time of year. And then the guy who made Mr. Popper’s Penguins was brought on to make a sequel to the story thirteen years later. Insert your own joke about unlucky numbers here because, quite frankly, this film has had enough unnecessary derision laden on it already. This is Bad Santa 2.

The plot: Small-time thief Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) is contacted by his old colleague Marcus (Tony Cox) who, after being released from prison, has a new job in line for them, this time bringing in Willie’s mother Sunny (Kathy Bates) to help. They plan on hitting a charity run by socialites Diane (Christina Hendricks) and her husband Regent (Ryan Hansen), with a large sum of money in their safe. However, it seems that both keeping his job long enough to complete the heist and keeping his trust for his colleagues long enough to survive the heist may be more than Willie can handle. Oh well, nothing a lot of booze can’t fix.

The returning cast here are mostly just as solid as they were in the original. Thornton is still braggish and abrasive as ever, channelling the utter contempt of his character expertly, and yet he also nails the couple of dramatic moments he gets. Cox likewise keeps up with Thornton’s barbed words and their chemistry is as tight as ever. Brett Kelly as Thurman is still technically sound but, honestly, there is a serious problem with how he is written that not even the best of actors could cut through. And as for the new cast, Ryan Hansen is nicely dickish in his mannerisms, even though he doesn’t hold a candle to our leads. Bates easily works with the complicated and largely aggressive relationship her character is given to Willie, not to mention genuinely coming across as the kind of mother that would raise the outright bastard that is our Bad Santa. Christina Hendricks and Jenny Zigrino, while definitely game for the antics they’re given, are mainly here for the more sexual side of Willie’s antics; neither of them measure up significantly to Lauren Graham’s genuinely kind-hearted Sue, but for what they’re given, they do a fine enough job.

Highly distasteful comedy is definitely an acquired taste; it takes a special kind of wrong-headedness to find this kind of humour to their liking. And no, I’m not making any judgement calls here, as I am most certainly one of those people where Bad Santa is involved. As a means of using extremely blue jokes in conjunction with a weirdly natural sense of genuine goodwill in places, the original worked really well as this dark and twisted ode to the holidays. And quite frankly, this film succeeds along those same lines. The comedy here is still good in how foul it is, and in some cases even better than the original with how sharp and savage the insults can get and how swiftly they’re dealt out. Not only that, unlike other black comedies I’ve looked at on this blog (looking at you, Hot Tub Time Machine 2), the actions that drive said comedy don’t feel out of place for the characters, even the ones that are newly introduced. Everything feels consistent not only within itself but also in connection to the first film, making this feel like a natural follow-up. That said, its place as a sequel both depends on certain aspects of the original’s plot being both remembered and forgotten. This is because, even though it follows nicely after the original, there are also quite a few plot beats that are echoed here to far lesser effect. Don’t get me wrong, most of them still work, but it can feel a bit tired if you have any real memory of the first film.

Now, as is the case with most blue comedies nowadays, this is the product of the current writing style of the sub-genre. That being the supreme edgelord writing mill where only the darkest jokes are accepted and any form of political correctness is not just discarded but torn to pieces in the process. This effectively means that everything is made a lot louder and (somewhat) even cruder than before and even more effort is put into shocking the audience. And this isn’t just delegated to the comedy either; the sex scenes have seriously gotten to the point of near-softcore porn with how graphic they are. Then again, said sex scenes involve Hendricks and Zigrino so… let's just say that I'm not complaining. Hey, I may be a Neanderthal sexist but at least I’m not hiding it; hell, I have a t-shirt that says it. Honestly, unlike pretty much every other film I’ve seen attempt the same thing over the last couple years, this works at aiming for “Darkest sketch! Darkest sketch!” because, as heightened as this is by comparison, it stays true to what made the core concept work in the first place. The main characters, quite simply, are absolute scumbags, but their actions never reach the point of irreversibly unlikeable. Least of all Willie who, even considering how hateful he is, still has that soft spot that allows for pathos without completely betraying his character. It takes something special to be both sweet and sour without feeling disjointed, and this certainly has it.

The only real offensive point for this film though, ironically, involves easily the most innocent character in the film. That being Thurman, who in the first film was rather dull around the edges but still that unmistakable sweetness that made for some genuinely touching moments. Now, both he and the actor portraying him have grown up and… wow, this has aged about as well as a piss-stain on a dingy motel wall. I brought up HTTM2 earlier, and that is the only other comparable example I can think of of a sequel taking the best part of the first film and making it the absolute worst of the new installment. I say this because, with the aging and how they have tried to refine their approach to poking fun at the mentally retarded (now calling him autistic, because that makes him being the butt of every joke just fine[!]), his very existence has become a joke that has been taken too far too late. He is ungodly annoying, keeping all the awkward statements from before without any of the genuine heart to make it tolerable. Okay, he gets one nice moment near the end that feels right at home with the rest of the film, but otherwise, he ends up souring a fair bit of the film overall.

All in all, in spite of Thurman serving as a big lump of cinematic coal, this honestly holds up to the original as a great dose of pitch-black Yuletide cheer. The acting holds up, the comedy goes harder but still works out (and, in some instances, exceeds the original) and even if the story hits repeat at a few points, it works at delivering both gleefully foul humour and the odd bit of genuine feels. The mass of critics claiming that this is a severe step-down? If you like the original, kindly ignore them and just check it out for yourself. It’s better than This Giant Papier Mache Boulder Is Actually Really Heavy, as the few moments of legitimate cringe here are far from as painful as they were in that film. However, as a means of doing outrageous comedy and being clever with it, it’s not as good as Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates.

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