When judging modern Christmas movies, a good place to start is with the “hipness” of the film’s music. Danny DeVito does a little hip-hop DJ-ing in “Deck the Halls,” Michael Keaton fronts a touring rock act in “Jack Frost” (his group in the film is called ‘The Jack Frost Band’), and “This Christmas,” while a fine holiday movie, features the great Idris Elba playing passionate, bluesy saxophone in a Jazz club like he’s starring in a Miles Davis biopic. The accompanying vocal track? “Santa Baby.”
The new holiday documentary “Becoming Santa” follows this annual Tradition of Wrong with a couple of faux rock Christmas songs that feature “raging” guitar solos worthy of Peter Cetera. If a poor choice in music supervisors was the film’s only trouble, things would be quite merry, but alas, it’s just one on a list of naughty (The Christmas wordplay ends here).
‘Becoming Santa’ tells the story of Jack Sanderson, a regular guy who decides to grow out his beard, dye his hair, and get a season job as Santa Claus. A voice-over by Sanderson explains that he is becoming Santa in an effort to get in touch with the “Christmas spirit” after the passing of his parents, his last living relatives. While a noble task for Sanderson, but it does not make for a compelling film.
In fact, Sanderson’s commitment to “becoming Santa” feels half-assed at best. It feels as though he wanted to be in a film, and why not this one? Documentary personalities like Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore can certainly be accused of trying to throw themselves into the spotlight, but Sanderson’s grab for fifteen minutes of fame is so blatant as to be cringe inducing.The most fascinating figure in the movie is Susan Mesco, CEO of American Events. She runs a “Santa School” that Sanderson attends. She’s bizarre and funny, and the documentary might have served itself better by being about her. At one point, Mesco says, “Don’t say the ‘K’ word [as in ‘kids’]. You say ‘children,’” Mesco explains, “Santa says ‘children.’”
In Santa School, Jack learns how to say ‘Ho Ho Ho’ (always in threes), as well as the art of cutting out paper snowflakes, and how much make-up and glitter each Kris Kringle should wear. There is a creepy moment when Mesco tells the Santas, “It’s so important to feel the love from these children and let them give it to you.” At this point, Mesco begins crying.
Sanderson becomes momentarily endearing when the Santas visit a toy store to hone up on the latest trends. A leader from American Events, Johnny Claus, takes the group of white-bearded men in civilian clothes down an aisle of action figures: “You’ve got Batman, you’ve got Spider-Man, you’ve got Captain America.” Sanderson takes a moment to tell the other Santas that there’s a Captain America movie coming out. At this point, director Jeff Meyers cuts to an interview with Sanderson, where he explains: “I’m a geek.”
The last part of Santa School involves Mesco dressing up in little kids’ clothes, sitting on each Santa’s lap, and testing how they deal with a “difficult child.” At one point, the film dates itself when Mesco asks Santa to “kill Osama bin Laden.” After some insistence on her’s part, Sanderson explains that “Santa doesn’t kill people. I know people at the U.N. I will help them find him.”
Sanderson seems ambivalent to most of what happens in the film. The camera often catches him looking bored, indifferent. It is when Sanderson starts meeting with children in full Santa regalia that he comes across as especially awkward, and sometimes causes the viewer to squirm. Jack’s signature move throughout his interactions with children is to look at a young boy or girl and request “one of your special hugs.” His voice can send a shiver down one’s spine.
The rest of the film outlines the various Santa jobs that Sanderson is able to get. He finds work on a Polar Express in Philipsburg, NJ, where he has to see 360 people in 90 minutes. He does four of these rides per day. Jack does one day of this work, complains about it thoroughly, and then is on to the next job.
‘Becoming Santa’ may have worked as a twenty or thirty-minute doc, but at over ninety minutes, it’s nearly unbearable. And worse, its self-righteous enough to turn Buddy the Elf into the Grinch. There’s a lengthy section that (seriously) delves into ‘Post Christmas Depression,’ as Santas reflect on how sad they get when Christmas is over, like a bunch of First graders who have to return to school. As if all of this weren’t enough, structurally, the film has three endings, “Return of the King”-style. There is dramatic music, slow motion, sentimental musings, and then fifteen more minutes.
The whole affair finally comes to a close with the statement, “Like snowflakes, no two Ho Ho’s are exactly alike,” which is follow by fifty people saying “Ho Ho Ho.” And guess what? They all sound pretty goddamn similar. [D-]
‘Becoming Santa’ is available for download on iTunes