The actor once blacklisted for his bigotry appears to be attempting a comeback. His talent remains — as do the memories of why he stopped gracing screens.Mel Gibson as Chris Cringle in "Fatman."Saban FilmsDec. 1, 2020, 12:45 AM UTCBy Sam Thielman, reporter and cultural critic

Santa Claus, it is said, knows when you are sleeping, so it’s probably best to come clean if he asks whether you saw “Fatman,” the new sedative written and directed (in the broadest possible sense of those words) by brothers Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms. The film follows Santa, played by Mel Gibson; Mrs. Claus, played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste; and a hit man, played by Walton Goggins.

It is terrible.

The fat man in question is, of course, Santa; he is being hunted by Goggins’ Skinny Man, who has been hired by Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield), a middle schooler who earned a lump of coal one Christmas. (He hired Skinny Man to kidnap a classmate and threaten her with electrocution if she didn’t falsely confess to cheating at the science fair where she took first prize and he was runner-up.)

As if a Santa assassination scheme weren’t enough of a story, viewers also must contend with the hackneyed workshop-fallen-on-hard-times plot, because (we’re told) kids are just getting naughtier and naughtier. (For a better version of this exact storyline, I recommend “Futurama.”) The twist: Chris Cringle [sic] must make up the financial shortfall — the world’s governments had been paying Santa for his services to their children — by taking on a contract from the Pentagon for some distasteful work. All of that makes for a lot of detail about government procurement in the film’s first half-hour, something perhaps found in unsurprisingly few Christmas films.

It’s fascinating what a failure of imagination this movie is. The world-building is staggeringly inept — in the universe of this film, adults hang up on one another at the first serious mention of Santa Claus, but children get presents from him with little plaques saying “Made in Santa’s Workshop” on the bottom, and they keep those presents into adulthood.

It's a movie made by people who seem never to have met a person or seen a movie — a Santa suit filled only with padding.

We also learn pretty early on that Santa just … gets better from gunshot wounds, so it’s unclear why we’re supposed to be worried about the danger posed by a hit man. The further into the film’s interminable 100 minutes we get, the more questions arise: What does the Walton Goggins character’s pet hamster have to do with anything? Why is there a long scene of him shopping for the hamster? Why are there so many scenes of him brutally murdering bystanders on a whim?

All of this would be forgivable if there were some other element of moviemaking the film did well — clever action sequences, for example, or interesting characters with recognizable human emotions. “Fatman” doesn’t have these. It’s a movie made by people who seem never to have met a person or seen a movie — a Santa suit filled only with padding instead of somebody’s grandpa.

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And then, of course, there’s the question of Mel. Gibson isn’t the only good actor in this movie — Marianne Jean-Baptiste, for instance, has been nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and a SAG award — but he’s the unmistakable “movie star.” The role of grizzled last-chance Santa Claus is practically typecasting, and he remains magnetic every time he’s in a shot, shambling around the frame mumbling jokes and delivering the script’s most flatulent lines with conviction and wry good humor — exactly as anybody who likes his old movies remembers him.

It’s hard to watch “Fatman” without concluding that it would be a much better film if Gibson had written and directed it, rather than merely starred in it. It’s also hard to wish his company on anyone, whether or not he’s a talented actor and director.

There are ways to show a commitment to change the systems of prejudice in which you've participated; Gibson doesn't appear dedicated to any of them.

It takes only a Google to remember why he was justifiably blackballed in Hollywood — a long history of bigoted remarks, from homophobic one-offs to full-blown anti-Semitic and anti-Black tirades, coupled with a domestic battery conviction. And it takes only a few minutes of screen time in this Christmas turkey to remember why he was such a reliably bankable star in the first place, why Hollywood let him get away with awful behavior for so long and why it keeps on testing the waters to see whether he’ll be welcomed back. (Warner Bros., for instance, has hired him to direct a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s classic Western “The Wild Bunch” in 2022.)

Too often, when a prominent artist gets blackballed for doing or saying something inexcusable, the response is to claim that there are plenty of people who are just as talented as the offending party. And, of course, this isn’t always true: Picasso was a legendarily cruel person; there aren’t a dozen painters just as good waiting in the wings if we get rid of his art. Gibson is a once-in-a-generation talent, and it’s dishonest to minimize his gifts when we criticize him. He was declared persona non grata not because he was replaceable, but because he acted like a bigot.

So the question then becomes whether bigots (and other bad people) can change; the answer, I’m sure, is yes. But the burden of proof is on Gibson — and, for whatever it’s worth, it doesn’t seem to me that he’s met that burden. It’s great that he donates to Jewish charities and has repudiated his past remarks, but those remarks are part of a continuum of behavior that spanned decades.

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A problem often elided when someone is as big a deal as Gibson is that expressions of anti-Semitism, racism and misogyny are participations in anti-Semitism, racism and misogyny — which are far larger forces than any one person, no matter how powerful.

I like many of Gibson’s movies (especially “Apocalypto”), but it’s been more than a decade since he produced a feature by a person of color or by any woman — and he produces a ton of movies. He also decided to take a leading role in a coming satire about how awful rich people are called “Rothchild” (another apparent comeback vehicle); for the uninitiated, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds date to the Napoleonic wars.

There are certainly ways to demonstrate a commitment to change the systems of prejudice in which you’ve participated and from which you’ve benefited; Gibson doesn’t appear dedicated to any of them. I don’t say I’m rooting for Gibson — goodness knows I’m not rooting for “Fatman” — but I am certainly still waiting for him.