Like every single movie nerd on Earth, I have spent a good amount of time sitting around with my friends pitching dumb movie ideas that really make me laugh. Even though the overall sentiment during one of these bullshit pitch sessions is, “Oh man, I would love to see this movie,” the reality is that I would often not love to see that movie at all. Case in point: Kevin Smith is one of the only filmmakers with whom we can trace the birth of a film to exactly one of these bullshit sessions. Tusk’s chief quality is that it exists despite the fact that, by all accounts, it should not really exist. Whatever other pleasure you might derive from Tusk is incidental; its accomplishment is that it exists, and the rest is gravy. Eshom and Ian Nelms’ Fatman is much the same thing, though I have no idea whether its beginnings are as auspicious as Tusk’s “I was way high on a podcast” origin story.
Fatman is based on such an outlandishly stupid concept that its very existence is impressive, but in another sense, it makes it hard to have any sort of expectations. What could one expect Fatman, a dark comedy about how Santa is forced to take a military contracting job because kids today suck bad enough that one of them has taken a hit out on him, to be like? What kind of tone could one possibly feel is appropriate for a film with that logline that stars Mel Gibson, the most unkillable of cancelled superstars? Is Fatman good because it shouldn’t exist, or is it good in spite of that? Worse still: is it actually kind of good, something that I actually did not really consider possible until I saw the movie?
Chris Cringle (Gibson) lives in North Peak, Alaska, where he runs a business sending gifts to the good little children of the world alongside his wife Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). Unfortunately, good children are in increasingly short supply, which has slowed down production and put Cringle’s contract with the government in jeopardy. In order to keep his head above water, Cringle accepts a contract to make parts for a brand new military jet fighter. This isn’t his idea of spreading Yuletide cheer, but business is business. Someone with a rather different view of business is Billy Wenan, a rich little Republican shithead (styled, I think, to look like real-life little Republican shithead Ben Shapiro) who has decided to take a hit out on Santa after getting a lump of coal for Christmas. He hires a hitman, Jonathan Miller (Walton Goggins), to take him out — coincidentally, Miller has always had contempt for the Fatman who also refused to give him presents for being a bad kid.
So there you have it: Fatman is one of those creative projects that exists chiefly by contrasting something that everyone knows with something that no one associates to it. It is a movie about Santa being a pawn in the military-industrial complex and how the myth of Santa could really only exist with the collaboration of several shady entities; 20 years ago, it would have existed as a monologue ghostwritten by Quentin Tarantino and delivered by a cool character actor in a derivative crime movie. Fatman manages to squeeze out a lot of juice from its premise simply by taking it as seriously as humanly possible. (I suppose the clearest analogue would be Riverdale, but even that show has long since abandoned any pretense of being anything but ridiculous.) Fatman is not a tongue-in-cheek, meta-comedy that consistently pokes you in the ribs so you see the absurdity of its situation; it takes its fundamentally extremely stupid premise seriously, and the viewer in turn has no choice but to believe it.
As a political comedy, Fatman doesn’t have much to say. It has so many plates spinning at once that the most charitable thing I can say for it is that its politics are highly confusing. It’s one thing to cast a little shit that looks like Ben Shapiro, but it’s another to cast him as the antagonist to a guy played by Gibson — who, Santa or no Santa, has a pretty bumpy record politically and personally. As a dark comedy, it barely scrapes the surface of its own nearly parodically grimdark premise — but that ultimately winds up being a positive. What’s perhaps most surprising is that, despite its premise, Fatman doesn’t really deal in edgelord platitudes and wanton envelope-pushing. It’s as grounded as you’re ever likely to see a movie about Santa having a hit put out on him — which might not be saying much, but still needs to be seen to be believed.
If anything, one of the biggest criticisms you can throw at Fatman is that, improbably, it’s kind of boring. It takes so much time setting up the particulars of its universe that it’s mostly over by the time things really get into gear. I’s really more of a drama than an action movie or a thriller, which makes it both less predictable and more likely to tread water throughout its 100-minute runtime. Gibson remains a compelling screen figure even in this craggy, fuck-the-earth mode, and Goggins gets a few laughs in a role that he could, admittedly, do in his sleep. In short, Fatman is about as good as a movie whose chief quality is making it off the page could ever be — a rare breed, though not one that I hope is going to make itself less rare in the future.
Fatman is available on VOD on Tuesday, Oct 24. See more about the film here, and watch the trailer below:
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