Travis Leamons // Film Critic
Rated R, 100 minutes.
Director: Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms
Cast: Mel Gibson, Walton Goggins, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Chance Hurstfield, and Robert Bockstael
Sometimes a movie hits that tonal sweet spot where it takes a simple premise and twists it just enough to make it a novelty. FATMAN is not that movie.
What should be a dark, satirical take on jolly St. Nick and would have worked, perhaps, as a live-action short, becomes a slog; by the time it’s over, receiving a lump of coal seems like a great gift. It had all the hallmarks (no, not the greeting cards or the channel devoted to bombarding you with so much Christmas cheer this time of year) to be a black holiday comedy worth putting into the seasonal rotation.
Mel Gibson as a disgruntled – dare I say, “Mad” – Santa who shoots guns and eats cookies? Sign me up. But filmmakers Eshom and Ian Nelms never fully commit to the sarcastic shtick of St. Nick. That is to say, Santa’s sleigh is stuck in neutral, and his reindeer are likely playing games with Ben Affleck in some other movie.
The highlight of FATMAN is an insignificant subplot about making ends meet. It turns out the big guy no longer corners the market in providing goods around Christmastime due to the commercialization of the holiday and altruism being at an all-time low. In debt up to his sleigh bells, to pay his diminutive staff Chris Cringle (Gibson) takes on a contract to service the U.S. military’s needs. This is what happens when Elon Musk turns you down, and you discover some companies have outsourced labor to kids working for sticks of gum. Bah humbug!
Unfortunately, other than being a means to have Chris mingle with the military as his elves make control panels for fighter jets, the filmmakers don’t really explore Santa’s side hustle to get out of the red and in the black. Instead, the comedy veers into a revenge shoot out with Walton Goggins, a hired gun, and a collector of items made from Santa’s workshop.
It is established early on that our Fatman is the real deal. He’s not the Santa seen making miracles happen on 34th Street or raising a very non-Elfish Will Ferrell. Our Santa is a Christmas curmudgeon that likely gets his talking points from Ebenezer Scrooge. With a get-off-my-lawn scowl, a scruffy beard, and a tired gait about him, you just know his days of being jolly are fleeting memories collecting dust somewhere alongside an old Red Ryder BB Gun. The only one who can bridle him is Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a.k.a. Mrs. Claus. Sugars and carbs in the form of freshly baked cookies work wonders.
Away from the North Pole, a vendetta is brewing. Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield) is a conniving little brat that forges checks to pay a man (Goggins) to “fix” his problems. The latest assignment is to kill the Fatman after he receives a lump of coal. Billy’s incensed; his voice travels a few octaves higher than those going door to door singing carols. Goggins goes into full sleuth mode in tracking the big guy down. At one point, he slicks his hair back like Pat Reilly, dons a black trench coat as if he were going to attend mass with the Boondock Saints, and packs an arsenal that would make John Wick go, “Whoa.” Why be subtle when you can light up Santa’s workshop brighter than the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center?
FATMAN should have worked. Problems with tone, our hero, and the ill-advised nature in having Mel Gibson as Santa. Sure, he’s the biggest name in the cast, and still likely curries favor with foreign audiences or older fans that stumble across one of his films on a streaming platform, but Gibson is reaching the point where he’s a gift best not received.
The scenes with Billy could have been taken out entirely, and you wouldn’t have missed a beat. He’s there to get Goggins off the bench and into the game. But Goggins has his own issues with St. Nick as a misspent youth that only got one toy as a child. Had the filmmakers made Goggins’s character (referred to in the credits simply as “Skinny Man”) into an actual person, where we could see how he became such a grinch, maybe then we would be more invested in him and his desire to roast Santa’s chestnuts on an open fire. And the redemption arc of Santa from codger to finding the spirit of the season is almost an afterthought.
FATMAN is a different kind of Christmas movie with wasted potential. Bad writing makes for bad execution. This trigger-happy Santa is on the naughty list. Don’t even have to check it twice.
Now playing in select theaters now. Hitting digital and VOD platforms on Nov. 24.