Films that become Christmas perennials are the monetary gift that keeps on giving. Hence the profusion of Yuletide-themed movies littering both theaters and the airwaves this time of year. Even when they’re bad, they’re good, at least from a commercial perspective, as the success of the truly awful Last Christmas recently attests. Nonetheless, J.M. Buris’ debut feature severely tests the limits of how much mediocrity viewers will accept in exchange for some forced holiday cheer. The most likely reaction among all but the most undiscerning to Santa Fake will be “Bah, humbug!”
The central character of this blarney-filled piece of Irish-themed whimsy is Pat Keeley, played by the fresh-faced Damion McGinty, of Glee and the vocal group Celtic Thunder, letting his adorable dimples do much of his acting. Pat is a young orphaned man from Northern Ireland who makes his way to New York City to start a new life. There, he’s taken under the wing of fellow Irishman Joe (screen veteran John Rhys-Davies (The Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark), who hires him to work at his bar. “We take care of our own,” Joe assures him.
The title says it all.
So far, so good, even if Pat singing “Danny Boy” barely five minutes into the proceedings should already clue us in that things are about to go seriously amiss. And they do, both for Pat and viewers, when he’s asked to deliver two mysterious briefcases by his employer. Correctly surmising that things aren’t on the up and up, Pat hightails it out of town on a bus, landing in Santa Fe, New Mexico, if only for the reason that the city provides the film a cute pun for its title.
After settling in at a homey B&B whose widowed Hispanic proprietress (Soledad Saint Hilaire) specializes in cooking dishes with flaming hot chilies — cue the supposed comedy as the unsuspecting Pat takes his first bite and winds up choking — he discovers that the briefcases are filled with a fortune in cash. Nonetheless, he inexplicably lets himself be persuaded, Miracle on 34th Street-style, into becoming a shopping mall Santa Claus by harried manager Emily (the equally fresh-faced Heather Morris, another Glee veteran), who soon becomes the film’s chaste love interest. “Don’t show fear, or they’ll tear you apart,” she advises the nervous Pat about the children with whom he’s going to interact.
Pat wins the tykes over with his boyish charm and smooth vocalizing, and soon becomes celebrated around town as “The Singing Santa.” (It’s easy to imagine the film having been made in the 1940s, with Bing Crosby in the title role, especially since Pat actually sings “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral” at one point.) Meanwhile, he’s being pursued by two dimwitted thugs sent by Joe to retrieve his money and get rid of Pat permanently. Although the duo is on hand presumably to provide comic relief, as evidenced by such moments as their heated argument over the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (“It’s turtle doves, you idiot,” one yells to the other), the fact that they’re played by Judd Nelson and Jeff Fahey, two veteran actors who have seen much better career days, just makes them sad.
It wouldn’t be right to say that, by the time Pat stops to sing “Oh Holy Night” even while running for his life from the murderous goons, the film goes off the rails, because it was never really on them in the first place. Even so, the would-be heartwarming conclusion, which conveys the story firmly into the realm of overly whimsical fantasy, is enough to bring out the inner Grinch in anyone.
Production companies: Dirt Floor Revival, Indion Entertainment Group
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Cast: Damian McGinty, Heather Morris, John Rhys-Davies, Judd Nelson, Jeff Fahey, Tony Amendola, Gary Farmer, Soledad Saint Hilaire, Pancho Moler
Director-screenwriter: J.M. Burris
Producers: Chad Burris, Matthew Hanson, Jonathan Marsh Delaney, Jasper Zweibel, Nani Rivera
Director of photography: Ray Ortega
Production designer: Scott Christopher Clark
Music: Ryan Beveridge
Editors: Michael Taylor, Shawn Wayman
Casting: Faith Hibbs-Clark