In the course of “Bad Santa 2,” Billy Bob Thornton’s title character — a dissolute petty criminal who uses his Santa costume to rip off an unsuspecting charity — ogles a breast-feeding mother, makes fun of “retards,” proudly declares that he’s “politically incorrect” and continually refers to women by anatomical epithets.
Nasty, leering, brimming with resentment and greed, “Bad Santa 2” revels in the same antisocial vulgarity that made the original such a hit in 2003. But it remains to be seen whether the sequel’s amped-up vitriol will be met with exhaustion or enthusiasm after the nastiest campaign season in recent memory. With a president-elect who mocked a disabled journalist on the campaign trail, and who could have been channeling his own Bad Santa in a video of him bro-ing down with Billy Bush, what seemed charmingly transgressive a decade ago now seems to have been normalized all the way to the White House.
After Sept. 11, 2001, some observers were moved to pronounce the end of irony; now it feels as if cynicism is having its own moment of reckoning, having so thoroughly saturated politics and the culture at large that it no longer registers as anything other than same-old same-old. The upcoming thriller “Miss Sloane,” starring Jessica Chastain as an ethically challenged lobbyist, possesses the sleek lines and Sorkin-esque repartee to qualify as a smart, well-crafted holiday season diversion. But when the film screened recently, the mood in the room was subdued, the film’s contemptuous, amoral portrait of Washington feeling both redundant and strangely obsolete. As Lily Tomlin once famously noted, “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.” Between fake news and fraud cases, foreign emoluments and Sieg-Heiling white supremacists, our efforts to keep up are precisely what propelled cynicism to leave us in the dust a long time ago.
As a film steeped in pessimism and inside-the-Beltway intrigue, “Miss Sloane” is of a piece with “House of Cards,” the Netflix series starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as D.C.’s most vile power couple, and the HBO comedy “Veep,” which even at its most outlandish is probably the canon’s most accurate portrayal of modern political culture. But if “Veep’s” sharply honed sardonic edge still feels on point at a time when even the most dystopian fiction seems unable to keep pace with reality, the casual cynicism of “House of Cards” and “Miss Sloane” now look simultaneously prescient and retrograde, their coarse rhetoric and Machiavellian self-dealing now manifested in ways that couldn’t have been imagined when their scripts were first written.
Of course, cynicism has always had its place in cinema, from the tough noir films of the postwar 1940s to the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s. But in the ensuing years, it’s become less a resonant worldview than an empty affectation, a way of signaling sophistication and with-it disillusionment — and little else. To the bureaucrats, policymakers and, yes, lobbyists who live here, the Washington of “Miss Sloane” and “House of Cards” is ludicrously overwrought and hyperbolic. More damning, their how-low-can-we-go scenarios no longer feel entertaining, or terribly useful; rather than clarifying and prescriptive, their toxic fantasies use cynicism for mood and as a convenient plot device, leaving viewers feeling resigned, powerless and paralyzed.
Tonally speaking, what’s most relevant for the current moment are values that might be described as cynical-adjacent: skepticism, intellectual honesty and moral outrage at its fiercest and most surgically incisive. And there’s always good, old-fashioned sincerity, which filmgoers can see being resuscitated with surpassing artistry in such films as “Moonlight,” “Loving” and “Manchester by the Sea.”
Rigorously straightforward and restrained, those movies prove that, in the right hands, humanism can be just as potent as the sickest satirical burn: The best antidote to collective distrust and hopelessness might be radical expressions of empathy and compassion. As the president-elect’s “Hamilton” tweetstorm indicated, forthrightly expressed ideals still carry their own disarming, even threatening, power. Ultimately, even when you succeed in keeping up, cynicism can take you only so far.