In the pantheon of our hallowed holiday traditions, few things are truly as unusual as the beloved mall Santa. Every year, we truck our kids to the local shopping center, snap a photo with Old Saint Nick, and enjoy it for years to come. Rarely if ever do we stop to consider that at the time that photo was taken, Santa could have been 20 minutes past his scheduled break and a little hungover.
I Am Santa Claus, directed by South Jersey native Tommy Avallone and presented by Morgan Spurlock, aims to change all that. Recently added to Netflix, the film shows us the men behind the myth via a rag-tag group of mall Santas who Avallone followed through more than a year of yuletide trials and tribulations. The result, as the film's tagline goes, is a document that examines "Whose lap is my child sitting on?"
The answer, of course, is complicated. Unlike the myth, we are dealing with men who have imperfections, hang-ups, disagreements, and just plain old problems like anyone else. Sometimes, they don't overcome those problems, and sometimes they're dressing like Santa because of those problems in the first place. Miracle on 34th Street, this ain't.
It is, however, an honest look into the lives of four professional mall Santas, plus WWE wrestler and Christmas fanatic Mick Foley, who undergoes the transformation from regular guy to Saint Nick through the course of the film.
Foley, who also served as a producer, is not I Am Santa Claus' focus, but rather the four handpicked Santas from across the United States. Avallone followed them for around 18 months, shooting everything from leisure time in the off season, to the holiday rush that starts just after Thanksgiving, and finally the eventual comedown on December 26.
The first Santa, Russell Spice, is a former caterer who has fallen on hard times and was forced to move into his daughter's basement. Another, Jim Stevenson, is a winner of the "Mr. Texas Bear Round-Up" and a proud member of the LGBT community. Santa Bob Geradi, on the other hand, is a churchgoing, Santa-themed real-estate agent. Frank Pascuzzi, who legally changed his name to Santa Claus during the course of the documentary, hates his Long Island construction job and hopes to open a Santa-themed BBQ joint.
An eclectic group, sure, but it is one that results in an engaging, if just slightly messy, presentation of world non-Santas almost never see. As a result, I Am Santa emerges as a remarkable slice of life look into the Christmas lifestyle.
There are plenty of heartwarming moments throughout, notably a Christmas surprise Foley arranges for his young son towards the end of the film. Conversely, there are equally heartbreaking moments, many of which revolve around Santa Jim and his long-distance boyfriend, Alex, who he rarely sees. However, due to the doc's slice of life nature, there is little conflict and therefore limited narrative to follow, which sometimes can slow the pace.
For example, former Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas president Rob Figley, now deceased, is revealed as a proud swinger and employee of a Ron Jeremy-owned Portland sex club in the film—an aspect of his lifestyle to which some Santas object. Bizarre, sure, but little time is spent on the conflict to flesh it out, especially considering how dramatic it appears to have been in the Santa world.
It is for that reason that Santa Russell becomes the constant thread throughout the film, even moreso than Foley or the others. Santa Russell, to put it bluntly, has real problems in comparison to the other Santas, who mostly don the Red Suit for larger reasons than paying the bills. He is, in essence, the saddest of the lot, and relies heavily on the $10,000 he's paid to play Santa to live his day-to-day life for the upcoming year.
Foley's presence, conversely, is relatively minimal, and serves primarily to show his first-ever transformation from Mick to Kris Kringle. His story as a newbie contrasts against the four other experienced Santas, giving the audience the largest connection to Foley in that we too are making our way into an unfamiliar world. It's fun, endlessly watchable footage, but essentially drama-free nonetheless.
Undoubtedly, though, the characters are really where I Am Santa Claus shines. Santa Jim, despite being sad on camera quite a bit, gives one of the most endearing descriptions of why he does what he does that'll leave you reeling, which is a consistent theme throughout his parts. Santa Frank, on the other hand, is the type of guy you'd hope to hire for your next Christmas party, if only to see that his credit cards do, in fact, say "Santa Claus" on them. The least engaging of the bunch, though, is Santa Bob, who mostly just makes a Christmas album with a friend and goes to church.
And that is saying nothing of the cameos. Wrestling fans will love seeing Robby Piper's respectfully aghast reaction at Foley's Santa Claus obsession and eventual transformation, along with good spots from Jerry Lawler, the Blue Meanie, and Tommy Dreamer. Even Artie Lange, who played Santa Claus in Elf, makes a credits appearance.
The final product of all this is an admittedly unconventional, incredibly endearing document of several men who take seriously the responsibility of keeping alive the magic of a story that is, for better or worse, central to our seasonal traditions. In that sense, there are few films that are more of a Christmas story, even if this one leaves you questioning the whole thing just a little bit.