‘Fatman’ Review: Gibson Wields Guns as Santa Claus
By Daniel Rester
The first time we see Santa Claus (Mel Gibson) — aka Chris Cringle — in Fatman, he is shooting at cans for target practice. He is also in an interracial relationship, day drinks at a bar, and drives a rusty red truck. The grizzled and disgruntled Santa here is indeed a very different version than those we are used to on the screen.
Written and directed by Eshom and Ian Nelms, Fatman revolves around Santa struggling to make ends meet while he is also being targeted by a hitman hired by an angry child. With too many children being naughty, Santa isn’t getting as much money from his deliveries as he used to. This leads him to take on a military contract where his elves will be building control panels for fighter jets.
Back to the hitman. He is Jonathan Miller, played by the reliable Walton Goggins. Miller is hired by a rich and sociopathic brat named Billy (Chance Hurstfield) to kill Santa because he was given a lump of coal for Christmas. The kid is only in middle school, yet somehow he knows a hitman, forges checks, and possibly tortures people. Just go with it.
The screenplay for Fatman was written in 2006 and then shopped around for a few years. I’m guessing the Nelms were inspired by Bad Santa (2003) with their darkly comedic approach to the holiday icon. Except here, the character is actually Santa and not someone dressing in a costume. They also try to make the film an action thriller and a bit of a grounded character study as well.
In trying to do so much, little feels done. The various elements of Fatman feel like half-baked sugar cookies. The comedy feels underwritten (“Santa Claus, motherfucker” is an actual line), the action is basic and gritty when it should be going over-the-top, and the drama that takes up most of the runtime is strangely flat.
Most of the film is Santa being mopey and working for the military while Miller is searching and driving in different places. The idea of Santa taking on a hitman is brilliant, but Miller and Santa never even cross paths until the final twenty minutes. In keeping the key characters separated, there is never a sense of conflict or urgency as the pacing grinds.
There can be darkly weird movies about nothing like this that still work if the tonal balance is mastered. Take something like The Big Lebowski (1998) for example. It’s an off-the-wall movie that hardly goes anywhere and shouldn’t work. But the control of character, timing, and genre shifts is there. Fatman has the pieces, but it feels stuck in the first draft zone as the moments that work smoothly only come in fits. The rest feels jumbled together.
Fatman isn’t terrible despite it not fully coming together. Gibson and Goggins are perfectly cast and have some fun bringing edge to these characters. Even as Santa, Gibson brings depth and humanity. Marianne Jean-Babtiste is also strong as Ruth, Santa’s wife. She’s the heart of the film and tries to keep Santa inspired in his work — by doing things like giving him cookies and showing him pictures of his fans.
The film looks good with its framing and snowy settings and has well-timed Christmas and thriller music too. The scenes with the elves are particularly funny and make you wish the Nelms embraced the fantastic a little more; there’s a clever idea involving food in how the elves manage to live so long. Goggins gets in a few hilarious moments that shine as well. Seeing him shopping for coats and getting irritated had me chuckling.
This isn’t a bad film. It’s just one of those mixed bags that has a core concept with so much potential but doesn’t do enough interesting things with it. As a thirty-minute short that took out the pointless filler, Fatman would probably have been amazing. As is, however, it’s a wild idea with tonal issues that is stretched to feature length.
My Grade: 5.8/10 (letter grade equivalent: C+)
Running Time: 1h 40min