In the years since Mel Gibson fell from the grace of his celebrity, we’ve been through the Mel Gibson-is-canceled stage (which happened but didn’t take), the Mel Gibson-gets-a-cameo-as-found-object-of-infamy stage, the Mel Gibson-crawls-back-to-nail-a-nutzoid-lead-role stage (remember “The Beaver”?), the Mel Gibson-has-become-the-hero-of-Z-thrillers-that-exploit-his-disreputability stage, the Mel Gibson-has-a-real-deal-comeback-with-“Hacksaw Ridge” stage, the Hollywood-still-won’t-accept-him-as-an-actor stage, and (at last) the Mel Gibson-barely-even-has-to-be-an-actor-because-he’s-now-a-meme stage.
How else do you explain the fact that he’s now playing Santa Claus?
In “Fatman,” Gibson is Chris (as in Cringle), and the joke of his performance is that with his spooky-sensitive blue-eyed stare, the crinkles-within-wrinkles that now frame those eyes, a beard of the most formidable bushiness that’s white on the bottom but with a dark mustache that curls upward, and a voice that scrapes the booming canyon depths to the point that he sounds like John Wayne with elocution lessons, he could pass for a real-world Father Christmas — or a backwoods serial killer.
This, in other words, is not your father’s grungy one-joke yuletide action comedy. It’s “The Santa Clause” meets “Magnum Claus,” and it’s pitched to the Gibson faithful with the idea that they’ll follow him anywhere (which they probably will), since part of the premise of their fandom is that Gibson’s movies, like “Dragged Across Concrete” or “Blood Father,” have now become parables of his “persecution.”
“Fatman,” as its title suggests, is much lighter fare, even if Chris is surely the grouchiest Santa on record. He lives in snowbound Canada, in a lonely picturesque farmhouse, along with his adoring wife, Ruth (played by the redoubtable Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who bakes Christmas cookies that look like they came out of your crunchiest butter dreams, and he’s got a personality that’s stern but benevolent, with one magical ability: When Chris looks at someone, he knows exactly who they are — their name, their history, the toys he gave them (or didn’t) as a child. He’s Santa as a psychic therapist.
That sounds like the premise for a fun movie, but “Fatman,” written and directed by the cult sibling team of Eshom and Ian Nelms (“Small Town Crime”), has an obvious plot that weighs it down like an anvil; at times, it’s like a bad Dan Aykroyd movie from the ’80s. Chris’s annual rite of Christmas toy delivery, you see, has been sliding off the rails. Too many kids aren’t behaving well; Chris isn’t about to reward any of that. So he strikes a deal with the U.S. government (which, as we learn, is already subsidizing him). He agrees, in the days after Christmas, to devote his workshop to building control panels for fighters jets.
The elves, led by the humorless Elf 7 (is it supposed to be a gag that they’re as loyal and functionary as androids?), step right up, and if you think this all sounds like a blah idea, you’d be right, though there’s one more spring-wire to the contraption. Chris is being pursued by a hitman, played by Walton Goggins with swept-back hair and a sociopathic nonchalance that makes him seem like a cartoon version of the young Jack Nicholson crossed with Peter Weller. Why is a psycho in black turtlenecks pursuing Santa? Don’t ask. (Okay, it’s because a brat who got a lump of coal in his stocking hired him. You asked!) “Fatman” is a countdown-to-the-showdown thriller that parallels the fate of Chris, who’s like Santa of the Yukon going through a mid-life crisis, and Goggins’ ice-cool sicko, who kills everyone he meets.
Gibson and Marianne Jean-Baptiste have a sweet vibe together. The violence, when it arrives, is bloody in an energized way. Yet you get the distinct feeling that the Nelms brothers think this is all a lot funnier, crazier, and more resonant than it is. “Fatman” is a holiday movie for the age of lowered expectations, when even Mel Gibson can make playing Santa Claus look like a feat of slumming.