Fatman remains a bleak bit of dark holiday fun even as it fails to seize on its more potent genre possibilities.
Somebody deserves proper credit for casting scruffy Mel Gibson, replete with his old, crusty madman look, as a disheveled, disillusioned Santa Claus in Fatman. There’s something very amusingly silly about putting a performer we’ve learned to reflexively recoil from in the role of Christmastime’s jolly gift-spewing mascot, even if this iteration of the character is blunted by depression and soaked in booze. It seems Santa (or just Chris, as he’s mostly referred to by here) gets a stipend from the government for delivering an annual quota of presents and thereby stimulating the retail economy. Unfortunately, lately he’s been offering up a disproportionate amount of coal lumps to recalcitrant children, so Uncle Sam is docking his pay. Of course, there’s a catch. He can receive his full paycheck — enough funds to keep his factory running and Elven employees fed on sugary treats — if he simply agrees to make satellite parts for the army.
Meanwhile, spoiled and spoiled-rich asshole kid Billy (Chance Hurstfield), who doesn’t like to lose, flies into a rage when one of those lumps of coal winds up in his stocking, and so he hires his regular hitman (the same one who helps him threaten a schoolmate with electrocution) to assassinate good old St. Nick. Fittingly, said assassin, who goes by the moniker Skinny Man (Walton Goggins), has his own beef with Santa. Eshom and Ian Nelms’ comedy may just be endless riffs on this one joke, but hey, it’s a pretty good joke. Unfortunately, Fatman keeps ignoring tantalizing details about its strange little world and then fails to follow up. At no point is Santa’s existence questioned, so perhaps he’s not merely a child’s myth here? Or how about the brief discussion of labor policies at the Elves’ factory? There might even be something about an equivalence between Santa’s working-class ideals and Skinny Man‘s mild disgust with the moneyed brat who hired him. It’s all frustratingly unexamined, the world never fleshed out and the intrigues left merely dangling. Most of the film is instead constructed of the hitman’s attempts to track down a solid address for his quarry, which involves him mercilessly executing a number of innocent postal workers, an unfortunate choice that does nothing to maximize Goggins’ sizable comedic talents.
Still, Gibson is absolutely perfect. His Santa seems appropriately depleted of merriment, and in the film’s quieter moments he brings some serious and surprising gravity to the proceedings. This isn’t a joke of stunt-casting; you can’t help but view a scene of Santa drinking alone in a bar through the lens of Gibson’s own history of alcoholism — this tired man is no longer able to make people happy. Only Mrs. Clause (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, sweetly stealing this movie) brings him any peace. The climax is satisfying enough, with its violent and explosion-packed showdown, but given that it’s the first and only meeting of our two protagonists, it falls short of any sort of emotional reckoning for either character, much less any serious mayhem. It’s perhaps unfair to judge a project for what it’s not attempting to do, but the idea of Santa’s factory packed with army dudes and flying reindeer under covert assault is disappointingly not on offer here. That missed opportunity — for this writer, at least — inspires longing for the promise of The Day the Reindeer Died, a fake action movie parody from the opening sequence of holiday perennial Scrooged, more than it punctuates Fatman‘s considerable promise.