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Review: Fatman Squanders Its Lurid One-Joke Premise with Literal-Mindedness

If it weren’t so airless, it’d be easier to appreciate Fatman as a character study of Santa’s midlife woes.

Photo: Saban Films

There’s an admirable perversity to casting Mel Gibson, known for his volatility both on and off screen, as Santa Claus, who in Fatman is of a piece with one of the actor’s traditional tormented tough guys. Santa, or Chris as he’s generally referred to here, is a working-class honcho who’s weathering rough times. Turns out that the American government is stiffing Chris on a portion of his contract, due to his high rates of giving children coal for their insolence. Coal doesn’t encourage the mercantile instincts of Christmas shoppers after all, and anyway the government is looking to exploit Chris’s desperation in order to rope him into a new contract manufacturing military hardware. This plotting is promisingly blasphemous, suggesting a satirically bonkers midnight movie, except that writer-directors Eshom and Ian Nelms play this scenario more or less deadly straight.

A Gibson revenge vehicle with Santa Claus as its hero is one that possesses comic promise. The Nelms brothers could have, say, contrasted Christmas clichés and action-movie cravenness and ultraviolence—an effect that Richard Donner brought off with casual aplomb in what still ranks among Gibson’s best movies, Lethal Weapon. But Fatman disastrously allows us to forget that we’re watching a perversion of Santa Claus, as Chris is a generic hero who just happens to own a factory where toys are presumably made. Weirdly, the audience barely sees any toys in the factory, and Chris’s sled is only fleetingly glimpsed. The sole facet of Christmas that’s regularly evoked in the film are cookies, though this sweets-craving “fat man” resembles a still pretty-well-maintained-in-his-retirement-years Gibson.

In Fatman’s most tasteless scene—one of few that attempts to exploit the theoretically glorious tackiness of the plot—a spoiled rich child, Billy (Chance Hurstfield), hires an assassin (Walton Goggins) to threaten a classmate with torture so that he may win first prize at the science fair. Billy is an entitled monster, representative of the upper class, while Chris, his wife (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), and the assassin embody the proletariat strata. Given his actions, Billy should go to jail, not just receive coal for Christmas, yet he’s so enraged with Santa’s mild, traditional punishment that he hires the assassin to dish out comeuppance. The film’s politics are murky to the point of reflecting indifference on the Nelms’ part. Given Gibson’s conservativism, and his history of spouting abusive, reactionary obscenities, it’s tempting to see Fatman as a requiem for jobs lost through globalization and immigration, though the anti-capitalist implications of having Santa suffer for his integrity are more conventionally leftist.

To occupy the mind, you may be driven to consider such meanings, as it takes the bulk of Fatman’s glacially paced runtime for Chris and the assassin to share a scene. Much time is spent here on pointless episodes of Chris overseeing the productivity of his elves, who suggest diminutive indentured servants (another potential source of satire that’s left untapped), and on the assassin figuring out where Chris lives. A few scenes are unexpectedly moving though, such as Chris’s moments of repose with his wife, which reflect the comfort and solace of longtime relationships, and of Chris in a bar having a single shot of bourbon with Alka-Seltzer—an oddly specific detail that alludes to Chris’s (and Gibson’s) struggles with alcoholism.

In fact, Gibson gives an honorable, vivid performance, meaning this isn’t the work of a disgraced legend cynically slumming for a B-movie paycheck. But that’s not enough to quell the disappointment that the filmmakers have taken their lurid one-joke premise so literally. Indeed, if it weren’t so airless, it’d be easier to appreciate Fatman as a character study of Santa’s midlife woes. Imagine the lunatic film parodies of Donner’s Scrooged taken seriously and you have an idea of this project’s weird and unsatisfying ludicrousness.

Cast: Mel Gibson, Walton Goggins, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Chance Hurstfield, Shaun Benson, Deborah Grover, Michelle Lang, Bill Turnbull, Bill Lake, Sean Tucker Director: Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms Screenwriter: Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: R Year: 2020 Buy: Video

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