America—or, at least, a majority of its citizens—has finally rejected Donald Trump. Yet somehow, the Mel Gibson redemption project continues unabated. The latest chapter in that endeavor is Fatman, a dark spin on Santa Claus in which the disgraced anti-Semitic/racist/sexist actor stars as a grizzled “Chris Cringle” despondent over waning holiday spirit and, consequently, the increasing number of pieces of coal he has to dole out to wayward kids. Disgruntled that he’s not as beloved as he used to be, Gibson’s Chris is a world-famous icon bitter at his newfound second-rate status, and the fact that others exploit him for their own gain. Reality and fiction don’t mirror each other much more transparently, or clumsily
Written and directed by Small Time Crooks filmmakers Eshom and Ian Nelms, Fatman (debuting Nov. 13 in theaters, and Nov. 24 on VOD and digital) imagines its Santa in distinctly Gibson-ian terms, which will undoubtedly be music to the ears of the Fox News-loving Megyn Kellys of the world, who want to see St. Nick conform to their own white-and-conservative ideals. Alas, it does so to no appreciably entertaining end. The dark, murderous mood of this mash-up of uplifting fable, assassin actioner, and bleak holiday comedy simply doesn’t work, less because those elements are inherently incompatible than because the Nelms brothers fail to develop their off-kilter premise in a clever or humorous manner. Instead, they assume that ironically casting a notoriously nasty guy like Gibson as the embodiment of jolly cheer is a joke capable of sustaining a feature-length revisionist Christmas saga. As it turns out, they’re wrong.
The Santa of Fatman (executive produced by Danny McBride and David Gordon Green) is a grumpy old coot who sports a scraggly grey beard and is buried beneath layers of furry hats, flannel shirts, and big overcoats. He does shots at the local bar, lets off steam by laying into a punching bag, and mutters constantly about his growing obsolescence in a going-to-seed world that doesn’t need or want him. This Chris wants to give up, although his wife Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) won’t let him. Thus, when he finds himself in dire financial straits—because his contract with the American government says that annual subsidy payments are dependent on the volume of gifts he delivers, and those are dwindling—he agrees to enter into a contract with the U.S. Army to help them ship parts for their new fighter jets.
This strikes Chris as a sell-out, and to be sure, on the day after Christmas—while still recovering from a bullet wound he suffered during the course of his annual duties—he tears up when announcing the news to his workshop of elves. Fatman, however, doesn’t present this turn of events as inherently negative; the longer he collaborates with the Army, the more Chris becomes his old self again, renewed by a sense of purpose and, also, by the lucrative checks Uncle Sam starts sending him. He’s reborn by cold, hard cash, which now allows him to fulfill his responsibilities as the benevolent godfather who gives young boys and girls toys emblazoned with a tiny plaque that reads “Made in Santa’s Workshop”—a weird scenario in which Santa comes across as both self-interested and crassly commercial, not to mention a bit of an egomaniac.
The conflict of Fatman is that there’s an actual war on Christmas, and it’s being orchestrated by prep-school pre-teen Billy (Chance Hurstfield), who responds to losing a science fair by threatening his rival with torture (to frighten her into relinquishing her win), and who reacts to the lump of coal he finds under his tree by hiring his favorite assassin (Walton Goggins) to find and kill Chris. Since Goggins’ hitman is also a fastidious creep—his office and home are austere and meticulous; his clothes include jacket-and-black-turtleneck ensembles—and he harbors bitter resentment over past Cringle-related slights, he readily agrees to the job, setting out to find the holiday titan’s carefully hidden lair and exact justice on behalf of all those punks who rightfully didn’t get what they didn’t deserve.
Given that Fatman is destined to have Goggins’ killer face off against Gibson’s Chris, there’s no tension to the former’s quest to uncover the latter’s whereabouts, and the reliably charismatic Goggins is handcuffed by a one-note character who’s neither amusing nor particularly menacing. That goes for Billy as well, a snot-nosed sociopath who funds his criminal campaigns with stolen checks from his wealthy wheelchair-bound grandmother. Their scenes, both together and apart, are functional and dull, designed only to underline their sketchy personalities and motivations, and to move the plot toward its inevitable climax. That the Nelms brothers can’t wring a single uniquely quirky moment from their plights—or from the various details of Chris’ operation, like his elves’ sugar-heavy diet—leaves the proceedings feeling like a novel premise that hasn’t been properly fleshed out.
Gibson exudes the type of don’t-tread-on-me gruffness that’s become his post-scandal stock-and-trade, albeit here alleviated by touches of altruistic kindness (he really does care about kids, or so he says) and genuine love for Chris’ wife Ruth. Depicting Mrs. Cringle as a black woman feels designed to counter Gibson’s infamously racist reputation (born from his rant to former partner Oksana Grigorieva: “You look like a fucking pig in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of n***ers, it will be your fault”). While it’s hard to understand why Jean-Baptiste would want to participate in that undertaking, it’s unsuccessful; Gibson’s unpleasant crotchetiness remains front and center throughout Fatman, souring the film’s attempts to make this grousing Santa endearing.
As in so many recent Gibson outings, resolution and salvation are ultimately achieved courtesy of the barrel of a gun, with a series of shootouts consuming the last twenty minutes of this inert affair. Trying to strike a balance between bitter and sweet, Fatman stumbles toward a finale in which Gibson gets to transform himself into a self-possessed and vengeful god who demands and receives better adolescent behavior via the threat of violence. Chris’ revelation is that chastising kids for being bad isn’t enough, and in fact probably begets resentment that warps them into evil adults; the superior tack is to scare them into submission. No doubt the writer/directors intend for this to be ironic as well. But such a worldview is as childishly dim as it is cruel—which, in turn, makes it feel in tune with its headliner.