Fatman (USA/Canada/UK, 2020)

November 11, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Fatman Poster

I’m willing to admit that perhaps my expectations were too high for this twisted, offbeat Christmas movie. But, when one considers the title and the premise – Mel Gibson playing a disgruntled, gun-toting Santa Claus – is it any wonder that I had high hopes? Alas, the black comedy I envisioned (perhaps along the lines of Bad Santa but with more shooting), never materializes. Oh, there are indications that the filmmakers think they’re operating in the realm of satire but most of their jokes miss the mark and the movie gets lost in action/thriller territory that’s anything but thrilling.

There’s one thing in Fatman that works – the idea that Santa Claus, disillusioned by the commercialization of Christmas and the diminution of his role – is forced to take on a government contract in order to make ends meet. In that subplot lies the kernel of a quirky exploration of new territory but the filmmakers are less interested in going down this path than having Gibson shoot it out with bad guy Walton Goggins, who’s the only one who finds the right pitch for his character – a more sadistic and competent version of Snidely Whiplash.

Eshom and Ian Nelms establish early in the proceedings that this isn’t going to be just another Happy Christmas Movie. On some level, this is a deconstruction of the Santa myth. The Fatman is real (and seemingly immortal) but he’s a curmudgeon who bears a closer resemblance to Scrooge than the guy who climbed down Clement Clarke Moore’s chimney. Gibson plays him with a perpetual scowl (and not nearly enough padding around the midsection for a guy who’s supposed to be fat). When he goes on his annual trip, he’s packing (just in case) and he and his sleigh take damage from random shrapnel. He has a soft spot for Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a.k.a. Mrs. Claus, but one wonders which he likes better: her or her cookies.

Santa isn’t without his enemies, however. Chief among them are a pint-sized sociopath-in-training, Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield), and his personal “fixer” (Goggins). Neither has any lost love for the Fatman and, when Billy gets a lump of coal under the tree, he snaps. His flunky tracks down Santa and implements a plan that includes a frontal assault on the workshop that involves a lot of shooting, killing, and explosions. Just the kind of thing you expect to find in your average Christmas movie. (Then again, there are those who consider Die Hard to be a Christmas title, so go figure…)

It’s easy to see how this could have worked. With the right blend of irreverence and Monty Python-esque humor, it could have been destined for cult classic-dom. But there’s something off with the tone. The focus on Santa’s midlife crisis gives it a dour, serious flavor and Gibson’s too-angry approach curdles the mixture. I suppose the ingredients are there but they have spoiled. The movie might have benefitted from a different leading man – Gibson brings too much baggage with him and he is ill-equipped to play the part of Santa. There’s something to be said about having a recognizable name in the cast list, but only if the name is right for the part. There are a lot of things Gibson can do right but playing Kris Kringle isn’t among them.

I’m not the biggest fan of Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause series but at least they understood how to reshape the Santa Claus mythology. When Fatman tries to do this, the attempt feels halfhearted and incomplete. The film’s forays into violence – which I suppose are a large part of its raison d’être – are off-putting and obligatory. The main character’s redemption journey is perfunctory and not terribly believable. It all goes back to the writing. The Nelms had some ideas – a few good, a few bad – about making a different sort of Christmas movie but, when it came time to forge them into a movie, they stumbled badly. The result is a lifeless and forgettable attempt to recast Jolly Old Saint Nicholas into a “Get off my lawn!” codger with a firearm to emphasize his point.

Fatman (USA/Canada/UK, 2020)

Director: Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms
Cast: Mel Gibson, Walton Goggins, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Chance Hurstfield, Robert Bockstael
Home Release Date: 2021-01-26
Screenplay: Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms
Cinematography: Johnny Derango
Music: Mondo Boys
U.S. Distributor: Saban Films
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2020-11-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Genre: Action/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1