Review: ‘Fatman,’ starring Mel Gibson and Walton Goggins

December 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mel Gibson in “Fatman” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Fatman”

Directed by Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms

Culture Representation: Taking place in Alaska and other parts of the United States, the dark comedy film “Fatman” features a predominantly white cast (with a few black people) representing the middle-class, working-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After a 12-year-old bratty rich kid gets a lump of coal for Christmas, he hires a hit man to murder Santa Claus, who is a grouch dealing with his own personal issues.

Culture Audience: “Fatman” will appeal primarily to people who like movies that put a dark comedic twist on Christmas folklore, but the movie’s humor and action fall flat in too many scenes.

Walton Goggins in “Fatman” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Fatman” is a Christmas-themed film that tries to be inventive and funny, but just ends up being not inventive enough and not funny enough to be considered a great movie. The “Fatman” plot often wanders and gets very dull. It’s as if the filmmakers want this movie to be a cult classic like 2003’s “Bad Santa” (starring Billy Bob Thornton as the title character), but they couldn’t come up with enough clever ideas to make it happen.

Written and directed by brothers Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms, “Fatman” is essentially one in a long list of Mel Gibson movies where he plays a grouch who can get violent if anyone tries to mess with him. In “Fatman,” Gibson portrays Chris Cringle, also known as Santa Claus, a crusty curmudgeon who’s experiencing a financial crisis. Because the world has become more cynical, there are less people in the world who believe in Santa Claus. And so, the demand for his services has plummeted.

In this particular Christmas season that takes place in “Fatman,” Chris and his loyal and loving British wife Ruth Cringle (played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste) have to decide whether or not to take a government subsidy to help offset the couple’s expenses, in order to keep the Cringles’ elf-populated factory in business. (Instead of the North Pole, the Cringles live in North Peak, Alaska.) The subsidy is to pay for the elves to make control panels for FJ63 fighter jets, and Chris is very reluctant to have his factory used for this type of military work. The subsidy also isn’t very appealing to Chris because it’s only half of what he and Ruth need to get them out of their financial hole.

This dilemma is a big part of the “Fatman” plot, but it takes a while to get to that point, because so much of the story is unfocused and wastes time during the first third of the movie. Expect to see a lot of scenes with Chris just walking around being stubborn and miserable. He’s the type of “anti-hero” Santa Claus who doesn’t wear the traditional red and white suit and hat, but instead looks more like a scruffy trucker in flannel shirts, jeans and ski caps.

Although he appears to be self-absorbed and short-tempered, Chris has a “psychic” side to him, because he has the ability to know everything about people’s lives without anyone telling him. And so, when he encounters people he’s never met before, Chris often likes to catch them off guard by telling them personal details about their lives that he would have no reason to know unless he had these “psychic” abilities. He also has the ability to self-heal quickly from physical wounds, which is an obvious sign that he’s not a “regular” human being.

As an example of his “psychic” abilities, one day Chris goes inside a bar where his platonic female friend Sandy (played by Susanne Sutchy) works as a bartender. Chris sees a trucker named Mike (played by John Tokatlidis) sexually flirting with Sandy, who expresses interest in meeting up with Mike later for a tryst. While Sandy goes in another part of the bar where she can’t see Chris, he approaches Mike, even though they’ve never met before, and tells him, “Hello, Mike, I hope Nicole and the kids are doing well.”

Mike is startled and asks Chris if they know each other. Chris won’t say, but he essentially shames Mike by informing him that he knows that Mike is married with kids and shouldn’t be trying to hook up with Sandy, who doesn’t know that Mike is married. Mike is so unnerved by how this stranger knows so much about him that he quickly leaves the bar.

When Sandy comes back to where Mike was sitting, she has no idea why Mike left, but she makes a comment about how something keeps going wrong with her “dates” whenever Chris is around. It’s an example of the clunky humor in the story. The “Fatman” filmmakers seem to want this Santa Claus to be a “badass” Santa, by making this movie geared to adults (there’s foul language and bloody violence), but there are many scenes in “Fatman” where this Santa Claus’ bark is a lot worse than his actual bite when it comes to confronting or scaring people.

On the one hand, “Fatman” wants to be a dark and edgy comedy. On the other hand, there’s a lot of corny and uninteresting dialogue in the film. For example, there’s a scene where Chris and Ruth are discussing the government’s offer to pay the subsidy.

Chris says, “We are a business. And don’t kid yourself, Ruth. Altruism is not a deductible on their bottom line.” Ruth replies, “Don’t put it all on them. You’ve changed too.”

Chris continues, “You might be right. Maybe I’m just like them.” In response, Ruth says in an encouraging tone of voice, “You’ve still got it.” Chris says in a world-weary tone, “All I have is a loathing for a world that’s forgotten.”

And why is this movie called “Fatman,” even though this Santa Claus isn’t fat? Because that’s the derogatory name given to Chris by the people in the story who want him dead. One of those people is the eccentric and off-kilter assassin (played by Walton Goggins) who’s hired to murder Chris. The assassin is given the name Skinny Man in the movie’s credits (although no one actually calls him Skinny Man in the movie), and his real name is revealed toward the end of the film.

Skinny Man is one of those assassins who’s been seen in many types of dark comedies before: He’s cold as ice but he has unexpected quirks that show he has a soft spot for certain things. John Travolta’s Vincent Vega character from the 1994 classic film “Pulp Fiction” was an obvious influence for the Skinny Man character, who isn’t nearly as amusing or fun to watch as Vincent Vega.

One of the quirks that Skinny Man has is that when he drives his car, he likes to keep his pet mouse in the passenger seat. He will go to certain lengths to make sure that the mouse is comfortable. He also has a fixation on items that have a label that shows that it was made in Santa’s workshop. It’s explained later in the movie why Skinny Man is so attracted to these items.

Skinny Man was hired to kill Santa Claus by a sociopathic wealthy kid named Billy Wenan (played by Chance Hurstfield), who is 12 years old and lives in an unnamed part of the U.S. that isn’t Alaska. Billy is supposed to come across as a “poor little rich boy” because his workaholic single father is rarely at home and he neglects Billy. (Billy’s father is never seen in the movie. Billy’s mother is not seen or mentioned.) Even though Billy is essentially a loner who’s mostly ignored by his father, Billy is really just an entitled and vindictive brat who goes to extreme lengths to get what he wants.

Billy has a collection of Best of Show blue ribbons that he won in science fairs. He is so proud of these ribbons that he shows them off on the lapels of his suit blazers that he likes to wear, even around the house. Billy’s ailing grandmother Ann Marie (played by Deborah Grover) is his main caretaker. However, because of her physical condition (she has an oxygen tube and often uses a wheelchair), Anne Marie can’t keep track of all that Billy does, and she basically lets him do whatever he wants. Ann Marie also mistakenly thinks that Billy is a good and obedient child.

How cruel is Billy? When he comes in second place at a recent science fair, he publicly congratulates the winner—a fellow classmate named Christine Crawford (played by Ellison Grier Butler)—but privately, he plots his revenge. Billy ends up hiring Skinny Man to kidnap Christine, who is held captive and ordered by Billy to give up her winner’s title for the science fair. He concocts a plan for Christine to lie to the science fair authorities by making a false confession that she cheated in her winning science fair project. Billy figures that the authorities will then take the winner’s title away from Christine, and then Billy will be named the winner by default.

On Christmas Day, Billy’s father isn’t at home because he’s working somewhere. Billy is essentially alone when he unwraps his presents. And he finds that because Santa Claus knows that Billy has been “naughty,” Billy has received nothing but a lump of coal from Santa Claus. Billy is so angry that he goes outside in the snow and yells to the sky, “You just messed up big time, Fatman!”

When Billy hires Skinny Man to murder Santa Claus, they both use the name Fatman to describe Santa Claus. Billy steals some of his grandmother’s checks and forges her signature in order to pay the assassin. It’s very stupid to leave this kind of easily traced paper trail for an assassin payment—one of many unnecessary plot holes in this sloppily written movie. Ever hear about paying in cash? And the person whose checks were stolen can eventually find out about the stolen money through bank records.

“Fatman” isn’t even that much of an action movie, since the only real showdown happens in the last 20 minutes of the film. And even that confrontation is predictable and filmed in a very “by the numbers” formulaic way. And really, when the movie shows way in advance that Santa Claus has a supernatural ability to heal quickly from physical wounds, there’s no suspense in what will happen if he gets shot or injured in vital organs.

Goggins seems to be having some fun with his mysterious assassin character, but the rest of the cast members appear to be just going through the motions. There are supporting characters in the movie that come and go with no real purpose or have wasted potential, and the main characters are often one-note and predictable. For example, a U.S. military official named Captain Jacobs (played by Robert Bockstael) makes frequent visits to the Cringle home and factory. This character, which could have been hilarious or memorable, is as bland as bland can be.

At this point, Gibson has played so many gruff characters in movies, he can do it in his sleep. “Fatman” might offer some mild and occasional laughs to people with low expectations. Just like the bad gift that Billy gets in “Fatman,” the movie is like a Christmas present that looks enticing on the outside, but once you unwrap it, you find out it’s really just a disappointing and useless piece of coal.

Saban Films released “Fatman” in select U.S. cinemas on November 13, 2020, and on digital and VOD on November 24, 2020. Paramount Home Entertainment will release “Fatman” on Blu-ray and DVD on January 26, 2021.