It’s strange that when you pass a mall Santa you don’t really think about it being someone’s day job. You don’t typically wonder if the guy in the red suit loves it or hates it. At best, you wonder if his beard is real. You aren’t curious if he’s desperate to find work or is obsessed with the idea of being Santa. And you certainly don’t ponder if he’s gay, a “swinger”, or perhaps nursing a hangover. You probably don’t give much of any thought to Santa’s everyday problems at all.
I Am Santa Claus, a puzzling 90-minute documentary produced by Morgan Spurlock, sets out to make you consider such things as it unveils the sob stories, triumphs, and scandalous behaviors of a handful of for-hire mall Santas. After a single viewing you’ll always, always wonder whose lap your child is sitting on when they see Santa.
The classic genteel version of Santa — that “jolly old elf” that we see in Miracle on 34th Street or Coca-Cola ads — will be quickly demolished with a one viewing of the film. And if you’re not ready for that, you should steer clear of this documentary. But if you’re interested in an honest look at imperfect individuals trying to the best they can, then this non-typical, flawed holiday flick might be for you.
Better yet, if you’re a fan of former WWE wrestler Mick Foley, seeing the “hardcore legend” gush about Christmas as he impersonates Kris Kringle in I Am Santa Claus is worth wading through the other oddities that are included along the way.
When its focus isn’t on Foley, the documentary follows four Santas from all across America for an entire year as they pass the time in the “off-season”. prepare for the rush of December, and face the proverbial punch in the gut that is 26 December. Watch Orange County native Santa Bob record an album of Christmas songs and volunteer with his church. Watch openly gay Santa Jim pose candidly for photos in his underwear and then break down when he misses his long-distance partner Alex. Watch tattooed Santa Frank talk about legally changing his name to “Santa Claus” and test recipes as he dreams of opening a Santa-themed barbecue restaurant. Watch somber Santa Russell live in his daughter’s basement, look for work and get totally wasted on St. Patrick’s Day. Doesn’t this sound like what you want (to watch) for Christmas? Probably not.
Director Tommy Avallone’s film moves at a slow pace and often without a clear narrative focus; however, these are colorful characters to watch. Strangely enough, while they both seem incredibly likeable, the experiences of Bob and Frank are entirely too positive to be especially interesting. There’s no significant arc to follow. Similarly, while Jim’s story will be sympathetic to some and off-putting to others, he spends entirely too much of his time on camera on the verge of tears and not enough time, quite frankly, given the name of the documentary, discussing his role as Santa. In contrast, Russell’s real-life drama is jam-packed with the type of bad luck you’d only find in vintage country music, which makes his story easily the focal point of the film. Russell is undoubtedly the white-bearded glue that holds the movie together and his difficulties (even in finding work as Santa) are rightfully given ample time and emphasis.
The film works best when there are significant juxtapositions on screen. For example, no matter what he’s doing, Frank comes off as a cool guy, the Santa you hope your kids will interact with. By contrast, Russell’s the guy you feel sorry for. Toward the end of the film we see Bob, who also works as a successful real estate agent, stay in an upscale suite that’s included in his compensation for being a mall Santa while Russell, in contrast, lives in a dump of a motel during his run as Mr. Claus. Santa having problems that Rudolph can’t solve is relatively new territory, and this aspect of the documentary, despite some peculiar choices in pacing, editing and tone, is disarmingly engaging.
There are also a handful of strange tangents the filmmakers take along the way. There’s nothing quite like witnessing hundreds of Santas share a meal together as a part of the Fraternal Order of Bearded Santas. Put simly, it boggles the mind. However, even more mind-boggling is the interview with the organization’s controversial president, Santa Rob Figley, who proudly frequents Ron Jeremy’s “swingers club” in Portland. Numerous members of FOBS object to his lifestyle, but Avallone doesn’t spend enough time on the controversy to bring any resolution or meaningful reflection into what appears to be a dramatic issue; that’s probably because nobody wants to think about Santa’s sex life.
In contrast to these sorts of provocative (and often underdeveloped) blips, Foley — perhaps best known for fighting The Undertaker in a WWE “Hell in a Cell” match — cheerfully recounts his family’s trips to Santa’s Village in Jefferson, New Hampshire. In the course of the film, he proudly bleaches his beard so he can assume the iconic role of Saint Nick at the Christmas-themed amusement park. As truly heart-warming as Foley’s Santa journey is by the documentary’s sweet conclusion — which I don’t want to spoil — Foley’s presence does feel out of place.
The four other featured Santas have collectively spent a lifetime playing the man in the big red suit, so the WWE legend’s experience of becoming a full-fledged Santa for the first time doesn’t gel well with the overall theme. It’s entertaining to witness other stars of pro wrestling like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Jerry “The King” Lawler discuss Foley’s bizarre adoration of all things Santa—the man even has a room in his house that’s decorated for Christmas all year long—Foley’s presence as Saint Nick is merely a draw to get a wider audience to check out this documentary that is, well, mostly about other people.
Foley’s transformation into Santa Claus, if anything, should be its own movie because when he’s on screen the tone, scale, and joviality are radically cheerier than anything else in I Am Santa Claus. For a film that seems to suggest that impersonating Kris Kringle is especially tough, Foley makes it look too easy. Then again, if the film were more enjoyable to watch in the first place, you probably wouldn’t mind.
But, as it turns out, being Santa is hard.