Producers:  Nadine De Barros, Michelle Lang, Todd Courtney, Lisa Wolofsky and Robert Menzies   Directors: Ian Nelms and Eshom Nelms   Screenplay: Ian Nelms and Eshom Nelms   Cast: Mel Gibson, Walton Goggins, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Chance Hurstfield, Susanne Sutchy, Robert Bockstael, Michael Dyson, Deborah Grover, Ellison Butler and Eric Woolfe    Distributor: Saban Films

Grade: C

If you’re looking for something different in a holiday movie, “Fatman” will certainly qualify.  As is so often the case, though, “different” doesn’t necessarily mean “good.”  The picture, from the fraternal writing-directing team of Ian and Eshom Nelms, is certainly offbeat, but also so tonally off-the-wall that’s it difficult to know what precisely the filmmakers were aiming for.  Is “Fatman”  intended to be a black comedy?  A sentimental fable?  An action movie?  A messy mélange of all of the above?  Whatever the intention, it’s not funny, or touching, or exciting enough to satisfy in any of those categories, and comes off feeling simply ungainly, if perversely watchable.

That’s not only because of the oddball script, but the casting.  Mel Gibson stars as Santa Claus—or more precisely, Chris Cringle—the real one, who delivers presents via reindeer-drawn sleigh to good children and lumps of coal to naughty ones on Christmas Eve.  The gifts are produced in his factory by elves, and he has a loving wife named Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste).

But he’s not the jolly guy, shaking like a bowlful of jelly, so familiar from countless movies and TV shows.  He’s a tough, grizzled businessman, apparently with a gift for self-healing, who for years has been dependent on a subsidy to cover his losses from the US government, which depends on him to spur demand for holiday gifts and keep the December economy rolling.  And he doesn’t have a place at the North Pole, precisely; it’s outside a town called North Peak in northern Canada. 

Unfortunately, business has been bad lately, what with fewer good kids to give gifts to, teens who try to shoot up his sleigh, and ever-increasing production costs.  So when the government cuts his subsidy, it could be devastating—if the bureaucrats didn’t offer him a deal.  They’ll provide the full subsidy if he’ll sign a contract to convert his factory to make missile-guidance systems for the military during the off-season, with his crack elfin staff doing the work.  How can he say no?

While that’s happening, Chris has another problem he knows nothing about.  A twelve-year old kid named Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield), a budding sociopath who steals from his grandmother and threatens a classmate who beats him in the science fair to secure the blue ribbon for himself (shades of “The Bad Seed”), is so furious at getting a lump of coal that he instructs his hitman-on-retainer, the Skinny Man (Walton Goggins) to ice Santa.  The guy, who bears a childhood grudge against Claus himself, eagerly accepts the job, pinpoints the big fellow’s locations in a way that might please fans of “Miracle on 34th Street” if he didn’t insist on killing his sources, dons proper hunting garb, amps up his firepower and takes on the troops protecting Santa’s retreat to fulfill his mission.  Naturally a one-on-one confrontation between the two is inevitable, as is a face-off between Santa and Billy.

Gibson grumbles and snarls his way through the movie (a query that Chris poses to the Skinny Man as they prepare to do battle—“Do you think I got this job because I’m fat and jolly?”—applies to the actor, too), while Jean-Baptiste provides balance with her warmth and grace as Mother Cringle.  Goggins does the number he’s perfected over the years—the very portrait of a smiling snake with a ruthless edge—while young Hurstfield, as the amoral Richie Rich type, looks a bit like the young Jason Bateman at his worst.  (Billy certainly fulfills one requirement of today’s cinematic cliché of a villain: he’s shown listening to a record of Mozart’s 25th Symphony.  Why a devotion to the music of the most sublime of composers should be considered a sign of inner malevolence is a mystery that filmmakers should be required to explain.)  Among the supporting cast only Eric Woolfe stands out as Elf 7, the foreman of Santa’s work force, who has a choice scene solemnly explaining the elves’ diet and rest regimen over lunch with Captain Jacobs (Robert Bockstael), the on-site army chief. 

Technically “Fatman” more than passes muster, with Chris August’s production design suitably drab and Jonny Derango’s camera capturing the chill and dankness of the convincingly cold, wintry locations.  Traton Lee’s editing sometimes goes slack—the Skinny Man’s attack on Santa’s factory goes on forever—but is generally okay, as is the score by Mondo Boys.            

In the end, though, while you’ll find it hard to stop watching the movie, it’s likely to leave a bad taste in your mouth.  No classic Christmas feast here.