Tuesday, December 15, 2020

"Fatman": review

[NB:  spoilers.]

"Fatman" is a 2020 black comedy starring Mel Gibson, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Walton Goggins, Chance Hurstfield, Deborah Grover, Eric Woolfe, and Robert Bockstael.  Somewhere in or near the Arctic Circle town of North Peak, Alaska, Chris Cringle (Gibson) lives and works with his wife Ruth (Jean-Baptiste).  Together, they are Santa and Mrs. Claus, working with a team of elves led by a foreman named Seven (Woolfe).  Unfortunately, kids over the years have become meaner and viler, which means that Cringle is getting less and less business.  The US Army, in the person of Captain Jacobs (Bockstael), comes to Cringle with a proposal:  a lucrative two-month contract to be fulfilled in the non-Christmas portion of the year, during which Cringle's elves will devote themselves to producing weapons-guidance systems for a new line of fighter jets.  (Why the US Army is proposing a contract that benefits the US Air Force is never made clear.)  Cringle has misgivings; he's a proud man who doesn't want to compromise his morals just to be able to make ends meet, but his wife, ever the pragmatist, gently persuades Chris to accept the contract.  Meanwhile, Cringle sends out his usual gifts and lumps of coal for Christmas, but when rich, spoiled Billy Wenan (Hurstfield) receives a lump of coal for having been a bad boy (remember:  Santa sees all), Wenan orders his family's personal hitman, Jonathan Miller (Goggins), to kill Santa Claus.

Such is the setup for a strange and often frustrating black comedy.  I can't say that I laughed all that often while watching the movie, but at the same time, the story was weirdly compelling, mainly for what it was hinting at rather than for what it was actually showing us.  Tone and character development were uneven, and the writers didn't know what to do about old Santa himself:  was he an immortal, metaphysical, near-omniscient being gifted with tremendous strength, or a mere mortal who could grow fat from eating too many of Mrs. Claus's cookies, and who could be wounded by regular bullets?  Was Santa a moral paragon, or did he whore himself out to the US government just to get some extra cash?  And if Santa had been morally compromised, what leg did he have to stand on when he gave that angry speech to nasty little Billy at the end of the movie?

So the main problem with "Fatman" is definitely the writing.  Ideas are put out there for us to chew on, and some are, frankly, brilliant.  The problem, though, is the execution:  none of these ideas is developed into anything satisfactory—except, perhaps, for Chris's relationship with his long-suffering but tough-minded wife Ruth.  We get a scene in which Chris is talking with his foreman, Seven, and we can tell that Seven is super-competent at his job.  We can also see that Seven and Chris have worked together for a long time, and they've reached a point where each can read the other's mind.  I would have liked to see that rapport—which felt like a true friendship—developed more fully.  It would also have been nice to flesh out the elves, who are presented to us as both traditionally magical and decidedly mundane.  (We never see them working on those high-tech guidance systems, but Captain Jacobs pronounces himself impressed with the elves' work.)  The movie has a hard time trying to figure out whether to portray the elves in a comical light or in a dead-serious fashion.  I was glad to see that Walton Goggins's assassin is given a personal motive for wanting to kill Santa, but when he and Cringle confront each other, Jonathan Miller's ugly past is only hinted at and glossed over, not presented with any detail.  That's a shame:  Goggins is a fine actor, and he could have used his skill to convey the pain, anger, and grief that gnaw at his character's heart.

On the brighter side, Mel Gibson makes for a likable, almost believable Santa—one who has become wearied and saddened and cynical over the centuries.  Marianne Jean-Baptiste feels absolutely natural in her role as Mrs. Cringle, who plays a decisive role in the final confrontation between her husband and Miller the Killer.  Walton Goggins does the best he can in a strange, strange role:  like those elves, his Jonathan Miller also waffles between comedic exaggeration and lugubrious gravitas.  Overall, whatever the script's many flaws, the actors are the best thing about the story.

But as I said earlier, too many good ideas go undeveloped, and ultimately, that proves to be the movie's downfall.  For a black comedy, "Fatman" isn't particularly funny, and it isn't even as grim as many black comedies can be.  There were many opportunities to go in a "Fargo"-esque direction, or to ratchet up the tension in Grand Guignol Tarantino-style.  In the end, the screenplay proves too confused and too timid, and the result is a mushy hodgepodge only partially redeemed by the actors' collective talent.  Ah, well.

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