‘Bad Santa 2’
Director:
Mark Waters
Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Don’t take it the wrong way when we say “Bad Santa 2” is a piece of crap. The original was, too, sort of. Epically lowbrow, mowing down Yuletide merriment with the grace of Charlize Theron driving her truck in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” 2003’s “Bad Santa” was, if nothing else, honest. Few onscreen characters have been as miserable, or as alcoholic, or as nasty as Billy Bob Thornton’s Willy, and the film delighted in taking a fall-over dive bar rat, who uses words like “f—stick,” and dropping him into a sickly Christmas movie. Look under the grime and cuss-outs, though, and it was closer to a searing ’70s character study. It even had heart, if in the form of a purple elephant stained with fresh blood.

Lightning doesn’t strike twice, and the worst parts of “Bad Santa 2” are like an unhappy married couple trying to recreate their beloved honeymoon, back when they still loved each other. The first was directed by Terry Zwigoff, the malcontent outsider of “Crumb” and “Ghost World.” No doubt Zwigoff knew 40 guys like Willy. “2” director Mark Waters (“Mean Girls”) and his two new screenwriters seem like they’ve just seen the first one 40 times, trying to study something that resists copying. The first joke finds our antihero crashing a car while leering at boobs. The first good joke, though, is realizing that, over the 13 years, Willy hasn’t changed a bit. He’s life’s eternal doormat, shunned to the sketchy outlands of polite society, too drunk to make good on what tiny scraps of decency are buried deep within. The poor guy can’t even try to kill himself without fate stupidly intervening.

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That “Bad Santa 2” still gets that — still gets that this guy is genuinely, epically, bottomlessly wretched, and not just a walking swear-word generator — makes the frequent but not constant bouts of sequelitus a bit more forgivable. Once again, Willy gets coaxed into some harebrained scheme, this time in Chicago, once again with partner-in-crime Marcus (Tony Cox), who betrayed him 13 years back. Dingbat kid Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) is back, too, now 21 but looking and, eerily, acting about the same; when he speaks, in his adult voice, the effect is surreal — like hearing American movie stars dubbed by different actors in old Italian movies. Still, Willy and company’s big score is a lot dodgier: They’re knocking over a Salvation Army-style charity joint. Now, that’s mean — or it would have been had the screenwriters not pulled their punches and made the big wig (“Party Down”’s Ryan Hansen) a crook himself, underreporting earnings and pocketing the rest.

Still, even a honcho stealing money from needy kids is pretty messed-up. Ditto the presence of Willy’s estranged mom (Kathy Bates), herself a thief who turns out to be the sting’s real ringleader. The world of “Bad Santa” is a bleak one, divided between the obliviously, obnoxiously cheery and the venal and criminal. Even the saintliest character — Christine Hendricks’ charity drone, roughly standing in for an AWOL Lauren Graham — likes to do it with Willy in alleyways. That’s one of the more subtle(ish) of many callbacks in “Bad Santa 2,” which are never as good as the first. The only nod to the original that lands is a game cameo from Octavia Spencer, the joke being that almost no one remembers that, eight years before winning an Oscar, she got it from behind inside a fitting room in “Bad Santa 1.”

And so “Bad Santa 2” is a different kind of piece of crap than the first. That’s kind of funny in and of itself. What it’s not is a mere clone. No matter how many narrative beats and even jokes are copied, with slight variation, from a “Best of ‘Bad Santa’” clip show dropped by some rando on YouTube, it still takes a deep stew in holiday un-cheer and bad vibes. In its early stretches, “Bad Santa 2” is merely dispiriting. Give it a chance, though, and it can surprise with its own voice and own gags, not the least any time Bates, predictably ravenous, tears into a group scene. And it’s a chance to hang with one of cinema’s most genuinely unpleasant misanthropes and learn that, lucky for us, he’s still a tragic figure.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge