‘I Am Santa Claus’ Review: Santa with Muscles
As an aging cynic, a twenty-year veteran of being a cynical critic, and a guy who watches in disdain as Christmas lands on the world with both feet, few things surprise me, especially involving the holidays. So, when a screener of a documentary called I Am Santa Claus rolled across my desk, my eyeballs began the instant dance of rolling-with-indifference. The plot of this documentary? Veteran WWE wrestling legend Mick Foley is going to become Santa Claus? How cute. How Lifetime special, nauseatingly, cute.
Don’t get me wrong; I am a huge fan of Foley as a wrestler. I’ve followed him since his ECW days, and am a proud owner of multiple Mick Foley DVDs. However, even with my adoration for Foley as a wrestler, watching him clown around as Santa Claus seemed less than exciting. Out of respect for Foley I pushed the disc into my player, deciding to see how long I could stand watching it.
I truly believe this was my Scrooge moment. I sat down to watch the movie as Scrooge, and eventually melted into Ebenezer. My three ghosts came in the guise of five Santas. Four career veterans of playing Santa and, of course, Mick Foley. What they showed me over ninety minutes was that I Am Santa Claus is a real film, a rich, layered, and wonderful story of human beings, real human beings who have dedicated their lives to portraying this mythological character. You think you understand the life behind your local mall Santa? Sorry bud, you don’t understand anything.
I Am Santa Claus is helmed by relative newcomer Tommy Avallone, and produced by Morgan Spurlock, the man behind several smash documentaries including Super Size Me, and Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden. Foley, who also acts as a producer, is the linchpin of the film, but he does not carry the weight of it. That is parceled out to four unique gentlemen, each with their own lives, their own demons, and their own reasons for playing Santa.
The film opens up on Santa Russell Spice, a man who has walked a very difficult road in life. After years of providing for his family, Russell was laid off and, unable to find gainful employment, forced to live with his daughter in Michigan. His outlook on life is a bit bleak, and he comes off as a most cantankerous Saint Nick. Regardless, you root for him, you want him to find a new home and put his life back together.
Next is Santa Jim Stevenson, who is one of the unconventional turns the film makes. Jim is gay, and also a bear, which means he’s part of a group in the LGBT Community attracted mainly to large, and usually hairy men. The conservative crowd might bristle at a gay man involved in a film about Santa, but that’s their problem. Jim is incredibly likeable, a sweet soul with a delightful southern twang, and an affable demeanor.
Third in the Santa line is Frank Pascuzzi, a Long Island boy complete with the swagger and the accent. Pascuzzi is incredible, an absolute gem to watch in action. The first scene he’s in involves him getting his named legally changed to Santa Claus. From there we’re introduced to his less than fulfilling work life, and how that drives him to find happiness being Santa Claus. Pascuzzi is charming and funny, like a fun uncle you can’t wait to have visit during the holidays.
Finally we have Santa Bob Gerardi, the most classic of the Santa crew. Gerardi is a real estate broker, an upper middle class Californian who is dedicated just as much to his Christianity as he is to Santa. What makes Gerardi interesting is his attitude towards life. Where most would expect him to be judgmental and sanctimonious, instead he is very open and accepting to the multiple lifestyles that make up the Santa world, which includes a swinging Santa that frequents a sex club.
Gay Santa? Sex Club Santa? To some this might come off as a cheap ploy, a way to sensationalize the movie and grab attention. That isn’t how the films uses these elements. Instead, Avallone and his crew use them to juxtapose the reality of the real people against the mythos of Santa Claus. It’s a smart way to show that those who play Santa Claus are not important, whether conventional or unconventional. What is important is that they embody the spirit of Santa Claus, and translate that spirit to children who believe.
So where does Mick Foley fit in? As I said, he’s the linchpin. Each of the other Santas’ are old school, having been involved in this world for years. Foley is a newbie, a man who has long been in love with Christmas and is just stepping into becoming his hero. We get to follow Foley from inception of the idea, to his final moment dressing up as Santa Claus for the kids in his neighborhood. His journey represents us, the layperson that is new to the entire idea. Foley is not the focus of the movie, but his part is necessary for the narrative.
I Am Santa Claus may ruffle some feathers. It’s not a common story, but make no mistake, it is very much a Christmas story. Outside of the presents, crowded malls, expensive holiday coffees and lights and dazzle, Christmas is about love, family and togetherness. It is about acceptance and joy, and finding something good in your life no matter what you problems are. Director Tommy Avallone takes the core of what Christmas is about, and then layers these stories around it. He keeps the editing sharp, making sure to hold on a story long enough to keep interesting, but cutting right when it needs it emotionally.
Being a fan of unconventional Christmas films (Die Hard is my favorite, Scrooged is a close second), I see I Am Santa Claus as a perfect holiday film. No matter what you believe, or whether or not Santa plays a part in your holiday season, this movie will move you, make you smile and, just like the spirit of Santa, make you believe.