Stalking Santa

(Full disclosure: I’m friends with a lot of the people involved in this film, including the stars. If I were on assignment, I would have to recuse myself from reviewing it. But as a guy just writing on the Internet, I can do as I please. I tried to separate myself from my familiarity with the actors as much as possible while watching it, and I tried to be impartial in writing the review. If I hadn’t genuinely liked the film, I wouldn’t have reviewed it at all. So take that for what it’s worth.)

“Stalking Santa” has a great premise for a mockumentary, and it hits the mark better than many of the “Waiting for Guffman” wannabes that have come along in the past few years. It’s the story of a man who believes in Santa Claus and has set out to prove his existence, completely unaware of how silly he looks or how dumb he’ll come off in the documentary — perfect fodder, in other words, for a movie about characters who never realize we’re making fun of them.

The man is Lloyd Darrow (Chris Clark), a self-proclaimed “santologist” who has devoted himself full-time to proving that the jolly old elf is more than a myth. His pregnant wife, Barbara (Lisa Clark), supports him both emotionally and financially, though it has begun to strain even her saintly patience. Lloyd has a devoted college-kid research assistant, Clarence (Daryn Tufts), whom he spends more time with than his wife or children.

Lloyd speaks in earnest, Mulder-esque tones about his research: Egyptian hieroglyphics with Santa-ish figures, crop circles that could be alternate landing sites for the sleigh, UFO sightings that were reindeer rather than spaceships, and government cover-ups.

Why is the U.S. government suppressing public knowledge of Santa’s existence? Because if word got out that Kris Kringle is delivering presents free of charge, Christmastime spending would plummet and the American economy would be ruined. It’s in the government’s best interest, therefore, to keep Santa a secret — and to keep Lloyd Darrow from proving anything.

Directed by Greg Kiefer (a Utah-based commercial director) and written by Daryn Tufts, “Stalking Santa” demonstrates a sly sense of humor when it comes to mixing fact with fiction, and William Shatner’s faux-intense narration gives it a nice, homey “Unsolved Mysteries” flavor. The various evidences cited — Bigfoot-style home movies, photos of crashed sleighs at Roswell, etc. — are clever and well-produced, and the movie keeps its straight face on most of the time, eschewing zaniness for satire.

It does get wacky occasionally, though, with the jokey, Christmas-themed names given to some fictional people and places: the “Quetzlclausl” carving at Chichen Itza; “Buddha Craus” in China; a Thai eyewitness named Tinsulanonda. That kind of thing is a little more MAD Magazine than “Best in Show,” and not in keeping with the film’s deadpan attitude.

The real-life husband-and-wife team of Chris Clark and Lisa Valentine Clark are a marvelous screen pair as Lloyd and Barbara, with Lisa’s veiled exasperation hilariously balancing out Chris’ obliviousness. There’s a very nice scene where harsh reality settles in — Lloyd plans to not buy any presents this year as part of his prove-Santa-exists experiment, and Barbara doubts him — and the Clarks play it with an even mixture of satire and realism.

Chris Clark and Daryn Tufts also play off each other nicely. Most of the film’s dialogue is improvised, and these two have a snappy rapport.

Most of the supporting players (including several veterans of Utah’s vibrant improv comedy scene) are solid, and the story moves in a straightforward, linear fashion, leading up to Lloyd’s Christmas Eve experiment. You get the sense that a lot of funny bits were cut because they didn’t add to the plot, while some plot-centric scenes that weren’t terribly funny had to be included in order for the film to be coherent. That’s the tricky part of making a mockumentary, and one of the reasons so many of them don’t pan out. “Stalking Santa” could be funnier, but it’s a smart, jolly affair as it stands — destined, perhaps, to be a new Christmas cult classic.

B (1 hr., 25 min.; PG, no reason in particular; it's extremely mild.)