I cannot think of many questions less burning than "what if Santa Claus was a resentful, embittered survivalist who had been almost completely ruined by the weak economy of the 2010s, and the only thing that reignited his desire to live at all was being hunted by an extraordinarily proficient assassin; and also Mel Gibson is playing Santa as his audition to start having casting directors consider him for the same roles as Sam Elliott and/or J.K. Simmons?", but apparently someone did, because Fatman now exists, and Fatman is asking precisely those questions. I should not be disingenuous: someone is brothers Esholm & Ian Nelms, who have written and directed the film together, and who very clearly believe in it, hard. Whatever one might say about Fatman, there's no question that it's coming from a sincere place - I might even go so far as to say if it was even a tiny bit cynical, it might have been better for the experience of watching the film, since it would perhaps be slightly more willing to let us know that it's okay to laugh.

As it is, the most striking thing about Fatman, even more than its wildly ludicrous premise, is how very serious its tone is. I don't think this is the same thing as taking itself too seriously, exactly. There are gags, though they are generally extremely dry, and extremely mean-spirited, and while I will insist that the film works as a comedy, it is one of the most caustic, unpleasant comedies I have seen in quite some time. This is very bracing and even admirable, in its way - it's a nice corrective to the plague of American film comedies in recent years that assume that we want nothing more than to hang out watching actors riff on each other in shapeless, baggy narratives - but one thing that Fatman certainly never is for more than a few seconds at a time is fun, and fun is the one thing that "Mel Gibson plays Santa Claus in an action thriller" really ought to have focused on providing, I think.

Beyond the hook, the plot is basically this: little Billy (Chance Hurstfield) is an example of the very worst that 21st Century childhood has to offer, a scion of great wealth who has no moral code whatsoever, and sees absolutely nothing wrong with treating human life as one more object to throw money at in order to clear it from his path. To this end, he has his own assassin on retainer, a gaunt fellow with probing, wild eyes, though this latter part might just be because he's played by Walton Goggins. Given that the first thing he does in the movie is to hire his skinny friend to kidnap a fellow classmate who had the effrontery to beat him in a science fair, just so he can threaten her with torture, Billy is obviously on the naughty list, and so he receives the requisite lump of coal on Christmas morning. Incensed, and still smarting from his science fair loss, he calls out a contract on jolly old St. Nicholas. Or just plain Chris Cringle, as we'll meet him when we visit him in northern Alaska, where he and his wife Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who is not a figure I expected to show up in a film like this, to say the least) run their increasingly desperate toy-making operation, despite the rapid speed with which modern children are becoming dismal little shits who neither believe in Santa nor deserve presents if they do. Things have gotten so bad, in fact, that Chris has been obliged to subcontract with the U.S. military to make ends meet, to the outrage of his elves, the quiet disapproval of his wife, and his own obvious self-loating, though we get the sense pretty fast that Chris is pretty well topped out on self-loathing as it is.

There's not a ghost of tongue-in-cheek humor or camp on display here; the Nelmses play Fatman incredibly straight. Between Johnny Derango's washed-out, snow-frosted cinematography, the generic action movie cues by Mondo Boys, a generic movie soundtrack factory, and the clipped editing by Traton Lee, this looks and sounds exactly like a run-of-the-mill low-budget thriller, and I suppose that means that on some level, that's all that Fatman is. Certainly, it should have been possible to lean into the inherent goofiness of the scenario more than this film does, while still preserving its dignity as a cruel, violent, vicious satire of awful rich people, the tendrils of the military-industrial complex, and commercialism, and I'm honestly at a bit of a loss to explain why the directors didn't do so. Because as soberly as Fatman presents itself, it is still a deadpan comedy - inordinately, inscrutably deadpan, but there's no way that Gibson, Goggins, and Jean-Baptiste are giving the performances they are if the directors aren't in on the joke.

The acting is, at any rate, the film's saving grace; as much as I enjoy the notion of a film that never once winks at us to let us know that it's okay to find all of this amusingly ridiculous, Fatman is really pushing its luck in how crabby and mean it's willing to take its jokes, and I say this as someone who fundamentally thinks that comedy has to be mean in order to be funny. The only gags in the movie that actively register as gags are a few shots across its running time thatΒ  are based on how essentially weird Goggins looks, and how just show him staring can be funny, in the right editing pattern.

As I was saying, though, the actors are doing most of the work that gets done to actually sell Fatman as a comedy; Jean-Baptiste more than the other two leads, I would say, given that she positions herself as a warm, humane presence, and that makes it easier for her to make little pivots into a pleasant, light tone of domestic amusement at her husband's grumpy seriousness. Gibson is at least having fun with that, exaggerating Chris's disgruntled harrumphing at everything that annoys him, playing into his "reactionary bigot asshole" persona for laughs (this is not, of course, a strategy that will work for all viewers), adopting a deep gravelly twang - seriously, he's channeling the hell out of Sam Elliott, and while I'm not sure it works, it's at least bizarre - and letting all of his "what the fuck is it now?" reactions stretch out for a moment or two longer than they really need to. Goggins is doing the least that's surprising; it's a role wherein, if you couldn't get Walton Goggins, you'd have at least sent a copy of the script to Walton Goggins's agent just in case, and the actor according plays to type, as a tightly-wound, ready-to-boil-over force of wiry violence. But he's also the best of three leads at making the deadpan humor land, perhaps because he's doing the least "acting".

I am sorely tempted to say that the three lead performers are all that it takes to make Fatman worth watching (or not, if you're not anxious to see any more Gibson films going forward, as I am aware many people are not), coupled with the fact that any chance to see Marianne Jean-Baptiste appear in front of a camera is automatically a good movie and worth your time. But after much soul-searching, I think I have to admit that Fatman just isn't that good. Certainly it does not at all live up to the promise of its logline, of Gibson as a jerkass Santa Claus in an R-rated action movie, or even of the plot it sets up; wretched little Billy gets a satisfyingly ominous comeuppance, but he's a much better antagonist for a Santa Claus movie in general, and a Santa Claus movie with Fatman's preoccupations in particular, than a generic assassin whose backstory is kept carefully hidden until his last scene, even when that assassin is played by Walton Goggins in full twitching and glitching mode. It's nice for comedies to take their scenario seriously, and not just pitch themselves as a fun playdate for the actors; but it's also nice for comedies to be funny, and when it comes right down to it, Fatman makes us work too hard for the laughs.