Midweek Movie Review: Fatman (2020)

Being Christmastime, it seems like the season for reviewing holiday classics. That said, I’ve never been one for Christmas movies in general, with the exception of off-beat films related to the holiday.

For example, I consider Die Hard (1988) a Christmas movie—perhaps the best Christmas movie—as well as Gremlins (1984).  But other than It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), of which I have fond memories of watching at my late grandfather’s house late one Christmas night as a child, I don’t tend to go for sappy Hallmark Channel Christmas movies (sorry, Dad).

There is now a new addition to that list:  2020’s Fatman, starring Mel Gibson as a jaded Santa Claus with business problems—and a price on his head.

If that premise sounds ridiculous—like The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot (2019)—don’t dismiss this film out of hand.  It’s really good.

Gibson plays Chris Cringle, the titular fat man trying to keep his government-subsidized toy operation afloat.  The United States government pays subsidies to Cringle because of the economic stimulus Christmas represents.  Unfortunately, the government shorts him his annual subsidy due to a decline in toy production.  The culprit:  too many naughty children receiving coal instead of presents.  Out of desperation—Cringle even places a sales call to Elon Musk!—the beleaguered Santa agrees to a two-month defense contract to produce control panels for fighter jets.

Meanwhile, the film introduces its twin villains:  wicked elementary school student Billy Wenan and his hit man—because every fifth-grader has access to an assassin to take care of their wet work, right?—Jonathan Miller, also known as “Skinny Man.”  Billy is a manipulative little twerp who forges checks sent to his ailing grandmother in order to pay Skinny Man to do his dirty work, such as kidnapping the girl who bested Billy in a school science fair.  When Billy receives a lump of coal for Christmas, he flies into an entitled rage, and order a hit on Santa Claus himself.

With that premise established, the movie really has fun.  The hitman is the stereotypical slick killer, which the film plays for laughs:  aggressive karate classes; whole duck dinners at the local Chinese restaurant; an eerily clean cold apartment; and so on.  He’s also ruthless—the embodiment of dispassionate Evil—in finding his elusive, remote mark.

Indeed, one of the film’s strengths is that good is good and evil is evil.  It doesn’t make Santa into some kind of brooding anti-hero.  To be clear:  he is cynical about Christmas and the state of the world.  People in his remote Alaska town know him for his cynicism—there’s no “hohohos” from him.  But he doesn’t go down a dark road of using his difficult situation as an excuse to do evil.  Indeed, he remains a decidedly good character, in the moral sense.  Santa Claus is a good guy, as he should be.

Steven Franssen made this point in his excellent YouTube review of the film, which is worth viewing when you have some time:

The villains are not entirely unsympathetic:  Billy is clearly a neglected child who is, nevertheless, a member of family intent on high performance (his grandmother almost sinisterly demands he “bring home another blue ribbon” before he departs for his ill-fated science fair).  Skinny Man cares lovingly for a pet hamster (one of the many humorous details of the film) and is bitter about many Christmases filled with coal.  But despite these qualities, the movie’s morality suggests their wickedness is acceptable.  It clearly indicates they have both coped with their personal traumas in the morally and therapeutically wrong ways.

Indeed, their sin is the sin of moral arrogance, of believing themselves to be beyond good and evil, outside of normal morality and its consequences (tiny spoiler:  Chris Cringle makes this point near the end of the film).  A child willing to kill Santa Claus over a lump of coal—or to kidnap and threaten a young girl for winning a science fair—believes himself to be beyond conventional morality; in other words, to be like a god.

That moral clarity—which, I hasten to add, is never heavy-handed—is refreshing.  The film explores these ideas without getting bogged down into them, though, and it never feels like a ham-fisted morality tale.  Chris Cringle struggles with his own problems, and is close to giving into despair as his business falters and he believes his image as a jolly fat man to be a joke.  He’s clearly experiencing an existential crisis about the meaning of his work and legacy—something most men of a certain age will appreciate and recognize.  Yet, again, he never succumbs to it completely, and he never loses his heart.

Most of Fatman takes place in the snow.  Indeed, a stand-off between Cringle and Skinny Man has the cold, isolated feel of John Carpenter’s classic The Thing (1985) and the Liam Neeson action-dark comedy Cold Pursuit (2019).  There are terms of real tension in the movie, because you care about the characters.  Their rich development, as well as the pacing of the final showdown, really ratchets up the climax.

Fatman also does a good job of explaining how Santa Claus’s operation works with a few quick but well-crafted details (the movie is exceptionally detailed, almost to auteur levels; each scene has some hidden gem of detail worth exploring), from how elves eat (an all-sugar diet) and sleep (twenty minutes every eight hours) to how they’re named (by number, based on hierarchy, because it’s more efficient).  The elves are loyal and optimistic, as is Mrs. Claus (Marianne Jean-Baptiste).

The character of Ruth Claus acts as a moderating influence on Chris Cringle’s moodiness, and her encouragement revives her husband’s spirits.  Their marriage is a model for what marriage should be (as written from the perspective of a never-married thirty-five-year old):  mutually supportive, holding up one another in their darkest moments.

Finally, it’s fun to see a movie in which the sinfulness and banality of the modern world exists alongside a real Santa Claus—who possesses some superhuman abilities, although the film only alludes to these very subtly (you’re not going to see Mel Gibson flying or anything; even his famous Christmas Eve global toy delivery is implied, not shown).  A big source of Cringle’s frustration is that modernity has descended to such depths, to the point that children are burning down houses and no longer care whether they get coal or a present (with the exception of the film’s younger villain).  He is a rugged, blue-collar traditionalist living in a world that no longer appreciates his craftsmanship, his attention to detail, and his dedication to tradition.

I know how you feel, Santa.  I know how you feel.

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