Our cultural associations with Mel Gibson have become so unpleasant that casting him as a miserable asshole Santa Claus is a gag so good there’s probably no way any movie could do it justice. Even leaving aside the extratextual “War On Christmas” deliciousness of everybody’s favorite drunken anti-Semite as the embodiment of Xmas cheer, putting the snarling nastiness of Gibson’s present-day, walking-cigarette-butt persona in the service of jolly sentiments is a joke that writes itself. FATMAN, an extremely strange film from brothers Ian and Eshon Nelms, doesn’t go as hog-wild with its insane premise as one might have hoped. (I’d personally had my heart set on a feature-length version of the Lee Majors-starring “The Night The Reindeer Died” spoof that opened “Scrooged.”) Instead, the movie dares us to take its sad sack St. Nick seriously. And the weird thing is that it almost works.
This has nearly everything to do with the grizzled Gibson, who in his late-career banishment to these kind of odd-duck, direct-to-video B-movies has become the kind of weirdo character actor we could always see struggling to break free during his reign as Hollywood’s most unhinged matinee idol. His Chris Cringle is a broken-down, put-upon government contractor, running a North Alaskan operation seen as “a stimulus package” for the holiday economy. But now that there are so many more naughty kids than nice ones Uncle Sam wants to stiff him on the bill. They’d rather all that awesome elf power go to making parts for fighter jets, anyway. Our exhausted Chris hangs out at bars in the afternoons, where the small talk gets awkward real quick because he already knows if you’ve been bad or good.
An unfortunately oversized chunk of “Fatman” is given over to the antics of an entitled rich kid (Chance Hurstfeld) who hires a sinewy hitman played by Walton Goggins first to fix the school science fair that he lost–coercing a false confession of cheating from the actual winner–and then to assassinate Santa himself, as retaliation for the lump of coal he was left under the tree this year. Goggins is a marvelous actor given precious little to play here, with the movie seemingly unsure of how far to push the gore in sadistic scenes that needed to be either way grosser or excised altogether, falling into an uncomfortable middle ground that’s not nearly amusing or upsetting enough.
Anyway, we’d rather be watching the depressed Cringle scarfing down cookies from Mrs. Claus (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, a long way from “Secrets & Lies”) and bemoaning his diminished stature. “I’ve lost my influence,” he complains in a line imparted with palpable urgency by the faded movie star, who plays all this silliness affectingly, often heartrendingly straight. The slightest wink at the camera or any acknowledgement of the material’s essential ridiculousness would have thrown the entire film out of whack. With his haunted eyes, stopped waddle, and a strained, bellowing voice, Gibson makes us believe in Santa Claus again, or at least in this very depressed incarnation of the icon.
The empty snowscapes of “Fatman” and its deadpan inertia reminded me of last winter’s annual Liam Neeson revenge thriller “Cold Pursuit,” in which the sensibility of Scandinavian director Hans Petter Moland felt like it had been at least partially lost in translation. (I’d somehow assumed from their names that the Nelms brothers were Norwegian, but in the press notes I learned that they’re from California, so there goes that theory.) It’s is an exceedingly odd movie, but one that gets better as it goes along, with the grotesquerie of its final scenes teasing a sequel that might be more on-the-mark. Still, this is very nearly worth watching for the perversity of its premise and that magnificent Mel Gibson performance, Oh, and also so that you can say you’ve seen a film in which Santa and Mrs. Claus fuck.•••
Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.