Oh man, are we in a backlash on liberal, PC culture right now. I mean, if you can call electing the KKK’s and Nazi party’s greatest white hope to the highest office in the world a backlash. I can’t even count how many people — strangers, family, trolls — have told me in the past month that I’m too PC and just don’t have a sense of humor. (“That shirt saying ‘Rope, Tree, Journalist’ doesn’t mean they really want to hang you! It’s a joke!”) And yet, as I sat in the theater to watch Mark Waters’ Bad Santa 2, the follow-up to Terry Zwigoff’s original 2003 bullet-train-into-debauchery-and-crassitude heist flick, I marveled at how many liberals and people of color were there, eager to be offended. I know they were liberal, because all anyone was talking about was how terrified we were after the election. But the second the lights dimmed, we were laughing. Nervous, tentative chuckles, but laughing nonetheless. Mostly at Kathy Bates.
In the opening scene, a carefree Willie Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) ogles a breastfeeding mother in slow motion and crashes his convertible into a valet stand. Yeah, that wasn’t his car, and he’s fired. Willie hasn’t shaken the rotund idiot-kid Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), who’s grown up to be a curious, virginal sandwich artist at Hungry Hoagies. And Willie obviously hasn’t learned his lesson from the last Christmas heist in a mall that went awry, in the original Bad Santa; against all his better judgment, he takes off for Chicago for another score with mastermind Marcus (Tony Cox) — who also tried to kill him.
Now, they’re ripping off a charity org, and Willie’s long-lost loudmouth biker mom Sunny (Kathy Bates) is the ringleader. Sunny is smart-assier than all the men combined. When Willie tries and fails to spit out the “pot calling the kettle black” idiom, Sunny’s mouth gapes in grotesque laughter: “He’s homeschooled!” When Sunny’s first introduced, she’s costumed in granny layers, and as she slowly undresses, she reveals a snake tattoo that gets more labyrinthine and outrageous the more she shows. Maybe the part is so robust because this film is co-written by a woman and directed by the gentleman who brought us Mean Girls. Either way, God bless Kathy Bates, because she scalds with the darkest, mindfuckiest burns as the ultimate Mommy Dearest. And this script is in dire need of her.
In the 13 years that have passed since the first film, two hugely talented actors from the cast died — RIP Bernie Mac and John Ritter. Both were supporting players whose personalities outsized their roles. Now, Bates swallows up all the open air left by their absence and belches it out with the stench of a nasty, give-no-fucks woman with a buzz cut who’ll take a shit with the door open — that moment drew a voluminous gasp-laugh from the women in our audience.
Unfortunately, the other new folks, like Regent Hastings (Ryan Hanson) — a charity CEO with a shoe fetish who’s trying to embezzle a million dollars — are no Bernie Mac or John Ritter. Yes, the unholy trinity of Willie, Sunny and Marcus do trample on everyone’s Christmas spirit, and because everyone they meet is terrible, it does feel OK to laugh. Basically, nobody is happy. Willie’s either pissing himself or getting pissed on by rich kids, and Marcus has to deal with the same old bullshit of getting blown off by ladies because of his small stature.
Thurman — who takes a bus to Chicago in the middle of winter, wearing only his teal Hungry Hoagies polo and some shorts — is the pure ray of joy in the cesspool of miscreants. Freshly arrived in the city, he calls Willie on his burner and beams that he’s really cold because “I only brought my gloves!” — which are, of course, his plastic sandwich-artist sanitary gloves. As he clutches a blood-stained pink stuffed elephant, he tells Sunny that this present meant more because Willie put his own blood on it (in the final scenes of Bad Santa). God, he’s so stupid and beautiful, and his kindness wins out in the end, thankfully.
But this brings me to the uneasy portion of Bad Santa 2, a film whose aim is to draw laughter from the severely offensive: I’m liberal handwringing over here about the people who won’t catch the nuance or understand why this particular un-PC film can be funny — while something like, say, I don’t know, the “comic” articles spewed forth about “libtards,” lesbians, Jews and Muslims from Breitbart.com are not. To be clear, Bad Santa 2 is no Blazing Saddles. It’s not scathing political commentary but a bleary-eyed view of humanity at its worst — something to laugh at as we simultaneously disavow it. Reality shows have long elicited those same feelings, but as we all know now, that shit is always in danger of becoming too real.
I don’t pretend to know everything about what hurts marginalized communities, but I do know a lot of us are hurting right now. This film is far from perfect, but it made me and some other terribly frightened folks laugh for a while in the dark, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let some bigots tell us we don’t have a sense of humor.
Bad Santa 2
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Christina Hendricks, Kathy Bates, Brett Kelly, and Tony Cox. Directed by Mark Waters. Written by Johnny Rosenthal, Doug Ellin, and Shauna Cross. Rated R. 87 minutes. In theaters everywhere November 23.