What, I wonder, is the intended takeaway for the audience when they watch Mel Gibson lie in bed half-naked with Marianne Jean-Baptiste, an established and otherwise wonderful Black actor, and they remember the time that Gibson told his then-girlfriend, “If you get raped by a pack of n—–s, it will be your fault.”
Are you supposed to applaud the filmmakers and give Eshom and Ian Nelms, the writer-director duo of Fatman, this wretched and bloated (forgive me) Christmas movie, a virtual pat on the back for being so generous as to cast a Black woman as a type of modern Mrs. Claus? (Spoiler: She shoots the bad guy in the back of the head, yet another moment for a Black woman to fix things ruined by arrogant white men and the military-industrial complex.) Or are you expected not to remember who Mel Gibson was — or maybe who he still is — and assume that this is the sight of a reformed man who would never use the n-word.
What is the purpose of Fatman anyway? It’s neither funny nor compelling, the action is hardly engrossing, and the plot is completely charmless. Chris Cringle (played by Gibson) is a gruff Santa Claus whose business is starting to struggle (unclear why, as the economics of giving gifts away for free remain unexamined), and he thus enters a partnership with the US military. At the same time, a monstrous child who recently received a lump of coal in his stocking hires an assassin (Walton Goggins) to kill Cringle, cut his beard off, and deliver it to him. Why do both of these things need to happen in the same movie? Because!
Also in the movie: some vague check fraud going on with the boy’s grandmother, a few tedious scenes of the adult assassin threatening a little girl, and a conclusion where Cringle confronts the boy after being stabbed and having one of his eyes shot out. Somehow, this movie does not end with Santa Claus killing this child; frankly, that would’ve only been an improvement. If you’re going to make an irreverent take on irreverent Christmas movies, then you might as well really go for it and have an impaled Mel Gibson shoot a minor in the fucking face.
It’s too obvious to say this movie sucks. It’s out today in select theaters and will be available digitally next week, but everyone already knows it sucks. It has a 38% on Rotten Tomatoes and not one positive review from any major media outlet. The New York Times called Fatman “tonally befuddled,” which I think is a tremendous generosity, like calling the coronavirus a mild inconvenience.
And since this movie is so uniquely bad, it forces any audience member to contend with the only thing left: Mel Gibson’s rotten legacy. It’s not that I don’t believe people can change or that I doubt his decade-plus of sobriety. I don’t even particularly doubt his skill as an actor, and I will always be thankful for Lethal Weapon. (Am I happy about the terrible television series adaptation? I am not, but I can only contend with one piece of cultural anguish at a time.) It’s just that if you have a miserable, chaotic, destructive history, you get very, very, very few chances in the public eye to distract the viewer from your personal context. The Beaver was fine, so I hear, as was Hacksaw Ridge, both good opportunities to address, and then ignore, who Gibson became to the public. But considering his long, long, long history of drunk driving, racist rants, domestic abuse allegations, and anti-gay rhetoric, there’s no room for further mediocrity. Every minute you spend watching Fatman results in a minute spent considering his colossal personal and moral failures.
Which, like I said, forces you to reconsider the scene where he has sex with his onscreen wife. Offensive enough as it is to consider Santa Claus a sexual, horny, gravelly voiced creep with guns and ammo next to his bed, you also have to contend with the brutal awkwardness of watching Mel Gibson — once recorded saying the n-word, should you need reminding — play house with a Black woman. Lulls in Fatman, of which there are many, give you time to drift off and think about the time Winona Ryder said Gibson once asked her if she was “an oven dodger” (Ryder is Jewish) and asked her gay friend, “Am I gonna get AIDS?” Gibson has lost the privilege to make a few stinkers and have people shrug and say, “Ah, well, you’ll get ‘em next time, tiger,” because his clunkers leave room to think about his history. And his history, like Fatman — and I really cannot stress this enough, as we sink deeper into quarantine and we all look for something, anything to watch — is too unpleasant to even hate-experience.
For the rest of Gibson’s career, no matter what he does and how much he repents — which often feels like an insufficient, tardy apology — he will forever be the center of conversations around whether you can separate the art from the artist.
Ultimately, these discussions are boring because, really, who cares? If an industry is determined to continue supporting someone despite their ethical (and legal) failings, then the industry will continue to support them. Woody Allen will likely continue to make movies so long as he’s a free man because there will always be both young ingenues and established actors who want to be in a movie about white people walking around New York together in the spring or whatever. (Did you know New York is very beautiful in the spring? Neither did I, but turns out there are 60 fucking movies about it.)
So, sure, in that way, Gibson is indeed a victim of cancel culture. Most of the Famous Chrises, from Evans to Hemsworth to Pine, can act in a critical and commercial failure or two and get away with it. (But NOT Pratt. He knows why, and I will not be explaining further.) But Gibson is at a clear disadvantage for the rest of his career because there’s no room for him to be lousy, which is exactly what Fatman is. And though I don’t really think cancel culture is a thing — or maybe it’s better known under its original title, “being held accountable for stuff you did” — it would’ve had a great purpose here. If it were real, then it would’ve stopped some executive from imagining that Mel Gibson could play a convincingly depressed but ultimately redemptive Santa Claus, and the audience could’ve put aside what we know about Gibson the Man in order to accept Gibson the Actor.
Like I said: Cancel culture isn’t real, and Gibson is free to make all the unadulterated garbage he wants. But so long as he chooses crummy projects that lag, that bore, that leave you time to think hard about what you’re watching, his career failures will just be more time for the audience to consider his personal ones. Maybe just rewatch Lethal Weapon instead. Nothing problematic there! ●