We’ve seen all kinds of cinematic versions of Santa Claus, the usually fat yet nevertheless jolly avatar for the season of giving. Whether in the form of a transfiguring Tim Allen in THE SANTA CLAUSE or in between the thick bush of Kurt Russell’s beard in the CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES franchise, Santa has usually been portrayed a good guy, if not an outright saint. Sure, there are some movies like 2010’s RARE EXPORTS and 2015’s KRAMPUS that have entertainingly taken their shots at making the fat man scary as hell but those two movies can’t match up to the trump card found within Ian and Eshom Nelms’ FATMAN: Santa Claus, but this time portrayed by a vaguely portly and grumpy Mel Gibson!
And let’s be honest here, that’s actually a pretty damn intriguing hook. While Gibson obviously has his problems outside of the films he inhabits, the man just has that natural gritty charisma that follows him into every role and FATMAN almost realizes a truly game changing portrayal of Santa Claus thanks in large part to Gibson’s efforts. In the Nelms brothers’ world, Santa Claus goes by Chris Cringle (Gibson) and he’s obviously been on the job for quite sometime as he sports a graying, unkempt beard and sad, lost eyes. Filled with a jaded worldview and a penchant for the brown drink, Cringle simply seems resigned to watch the nice world he once knew burn in perpetual naughtiness. Nevertheless, the old man persists in his seasonal duties as his wife (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) does her best to keep the man and the Christmas operations up and running at a remote estate in the Far North. However, just as the old man finds new hope in a new partnership with the US military, a jaded and icy silver spooned kid (Chance Hurstfield) sends an assassin (Walton Goggins) after old Saint Nick’s head after being gifted a piece of coal for his bad behavior.
So yes, everything so far in FATMAN sounds fucking awesome. You got Gibson as a gritty Santa Claus. You got Goggins as a refined yet nutty assassin. And you have a story seemingly intent on letting its freak flag fly just in time for the upcoming good-natured season. Sadly, like most other genre exercises that exhibit strong plot hooks, FATMAN is a film that seems unsure on how to approach its topic. On one end, the story seems fully aware of just how ridiculously awesome its story is, mainly personified by the spastic acting of Goggins and the over the top coldness of Mr. Hurstfield, who bites into every line of his with the verve of a dickish Lil Rascal. However, in everything related to our belabored Santa, the film revels in the sadness and cynicism of seeing an icon of warmth and good feels get beaten down by an increasingly cruel and uncaring world. These contrasts, of the zany and the glib, never coalesce naturally in the entirety of the film’s run as the sibling filmmakers fail to generate any natural humor or darkness from their tale (even though I was a fan of Goggins’ heartless character having a cute pet gerbil). Instead, it’s up to Gibson’s sad Santa, and to another extent Ms. Jean-Baptiste’s equally solid performance as the sympathetic Mrs. Claus to carry the film across its dips in quality. And to their credit, these two performers supply all the heart, humor, and sadness that the film lacks in every other area as Gibson, who can play gritty hardasses in his sleep, portrays a genuinely sympathetic version of a troubled Santa supported only by the undying love of his wife, which Jean-Baptiste displays in surprisingly tender and loving moments with the scruffy Gibson. Even so, Gibson can just as easily slink into Santa’s calm and ruthless persona, which is effectively displayed in the climactic showdown between himself and Goggins in a faceoff that is entertainingly tidy in its quick resolution, despite its last minute attempts to finally imbue Goggins’ character with some sense of character.
Indeed, FATMAN is surprisingly much better at being a downer of a film than some zany dark comedy about kids hiring assassins to kill Santa Claus but that’s mainly due to the efforts of Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus. Indeed, as writers, the Nelms brothers find better footing in Gibson’s hard boiled and grounded dialogue than in the more cartoonish threats of Goggins and Hurstfield which really just come off as unfunny and flat. While the Nelms brothers have a lot of ideas on their plates they rarely cut into any of them with any deeper meaning or quality outside of their entertaining setups and the pacing of their tale suffers from a story that has characters that are barely fleshed out outside of, once again, Mr. and Mrs. Claus. While the brothers, who also handled directing duties together, craft a film that looks solid, the overall visual aesthetic of the film is plain and dry as the filmmakers station their characters in the drab white, gray, or black settings of isolated cabins and underground warehouses. As a result, the only color, both literally and metaphorically to be found in this film is once again found in Mr. Gibson and Ms. Jean-Baptiste’s sturdy performances.
Overall, FATMAN isn’t going to blow the doors off of the cinematic depictions of Santa Claus but it will provide another cinematic example of an intriguing idea executed rather plainly. While Gibson more than delivers on his performance as a unfuckwithable Santa Claus, the rest of the film fails to keep up. It’s not a whole piece of coal but FATMAN does feel like something close to getting promised a PS5 only to get a PSP.