It certainly doesn’t feel like awards season is right around the corner. Between the empty theaters and the release delays, I’m having a hard time getting excited about the 2021 race. That doesn’t mean there aren’t already multiple contenders out there in each category. Nor do we lack the other kinds of films that typically sneak out this time of year. I’m speaking of the coat-tail riders, the low-budget comedies and action hacks that count on the uptick in attendance all of the critical darlings create.
Sadly, it doesn’t feel much like Holiday season either. And Mel Gibson’s version of Santa Claus in the movie “Fatman” might agree. Setting aside the controversial Mr. Gibson himself for a moment, it pays to reflect on the secular Christmas movie phenomenon generally and depictions of Chris Kringle specifically. The list of iconic, and beloved, December classics is long and varied. Everything from “Home Alone” to (yes, I’m saying it here) “Die Hard” gets a nod. But films that feature Santa himself as a central character are a relatively small part of the whole. Tim Allen has done it. A lot. But so has Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Ed Asner, and even Whoopi Goldberg if we are willing to extend our list into made-for-television films. In “Fatman,” Mel Gibson places Santa in a very modern context. He’s overworked, over budget, and under-appreciated. He’s also gruff and tough. Very tough it turns out.
Directed by Indie veterans, Eshom and Ian Nelms, “Fatman” seems to hope we will regard Santa Claus as a fallen superhero or perhaps a kind of grumpy minor god in decline. He’s trying to make sense of a mortal world that is beginning to forget him, and that effort is clearly very frustrating. As novel set-ups for age-old stories go, this one had potential. The world-building, even though small in scale, is actually pretty compelling. It’s too bad then that none of the film’s story ideas go nearly far enough to back it up. In fact, that’s the best way to describe “Fatman.” As a collection of unrealized goals. Of thoughts begun but never completed. For example, we don’t learn nearly enough about the elves. The military contract subplot stalls out immediately after it begins. And the assassin played by Walton Goggins has virtually no backstory. Neither does the bratty rich kid who sets the whole thing in motion. Only the relationship between Kringle and his wife Ruth (portrayed admirably by Marianne Jean-Baptiste) enjoys any real attempt at depth. With all of these plot threads spinning out into nothing, we’re left with something grim and violent and frankly not much fun.
Mel Gibson is, to say the least, a provocative figure in Hollywood. This is not the place to parse his various problematic comments over the years or sort through his positions on important global and human issues. For that, other, more thorough investigations and tapes exist. But when viewed solely as an actor trying to reclaim some of his old magic, it’s clear Gibson has been forced to take what he can get. This means doing a ton of straight-to-airplane action cookie-cutters. It means doing “Daddy’s Home 2″. And, this year, it means being the “Fatman.” Don’t get me wrong, he can still fill up the screen. When it comes to vengeful wrath and goofy sentimentalism, Mel is your man. What I’m saying is, he’s kind of perfect as “Mad Santa.” There’s simply too much mean-spirited cynicism in “Fatman” for that to matter.
I have no doubt many of the films available now to stream are destined for Oscar consideration, and that they deserve it. “Fatman” will be forgotten in a month, which it deserves. Here’s hoping the world gets this virus under control soon, so the big screen can catch up to the small one.