Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Elf

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

ELF

6/10

USA 2003 : Jon FAVREAU : 97 mins

In autumn 2001, when Zoolander and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back were released within a month of each other in the UK, it would be fair to say that this critic was not a member of the Ferrell Fan Club. On JSBSB, I commented Will Ferrell brings the picture to a halt every time he pops up as a hapless Fed[eral Agent]. On Zoolander: Will Ferrell (as Gaultieresque designer Mugatu) does his level best to keep the laugh-ratio down. How does this comedy dead-zone get work?

Since then, Ferrell hasnt just managed to get work thanks to Elfs unexpected smash-hit status at the US box-office, he’s the hottest new comic talent since Jim Carreys Ace Ventura breakthrough. To be fair, this isn’t a total shock his other 2003 release, Old School*, was very much a step in the right direction: back in May I wrote that Ferrell who so often tries way too hard (Zoolander) is surprisingly good value as the volatile Frank, whose mask of doughy settled-down dullness often rapidly slips to reveal the beer-guzzling party-monster lurking beneath.

Old School worked partly because it used Ferrells annoying boisterousness to positive comic effect. Elf does likewise, though his role here is many ways the polar opposite of his beer-guzzling party-monster Frank. Literally polar, that is: his character Buddy** grew up at the North Pole among Santa (Ed Asner) and his elves, for reasons too complicated to explain here.

The story proper kicks in when Buddy travels to New York where his existence comes as a major shock to his biological father, irascible childrens-book publisher Walter (James Caan). Walter is alarmed by this six-foot bundle of child-like energy dressed in full elf costume, and doesn’t welcome the new addition to his family (wife Mary Steenburgen, neglected young son Daniel Tay). Buddy finds a warmer reception when he accidentally starts working at a department store where his special skills come in very handy at the toy department in the run-up to Christmas. Comic, romantic and festive developments ensue.

Buddy initially disconcerts, but ultimately wins over, everyone he meets (his relationship with his father is essentially a case of Candide thawing Scrroge) and most viewers will probably follow suit. His upbeat gee-whizzness can get a little overpowering, but there are enough decent gags along the way to ensure Elf never quite bogs down into sentimentality. The best of which is also the most subtle, namely the fact that Buddys Elf costume turns not a single hair or head on the streets of anything-goes modern Manhattan.

As Christmas movies go, this one is – at the very least – a semi-spoof, with an effective knowing post-modern edge to the corniness. Even so, the fundamental concept doesn’t quite hold water: Buddy isn’t nave/innocent/child-like because he’s an elf – as we see at the beginning, most elves (including Papa Elf) don’t share these traits at all. And characters often remark that he thinks he’s an elf when its made clear very early on that Buddy knows hes human.

On the plus side, Zooey (All the Real Girls) Deschanel exudes an alluringly sleepy Chloe Sevigny-like presence as Buddys bemused love-interest Jovie. And there’s a terrific cameo from Peter Dinklage as a four-foot-odd take-no-crap childrens author who isn’t amused when Buddy innocently asks if he’s from Santas workshop. Dinklage doesn’t have nearly as much screen time as he deserves here, but this appearance alongside his much meatier and radically different performance in drama The Station Agent is enough to confirm the unexpected arrival of a major screen acting talent. In the case of Ferrell, however, an even more unexpected star has been born. Will Ferrell! As A Mighty Winds Fred Willard would put it: wha happen???!

9th January, 2004
(seen 6th January : UGC Boldon)

* In the same review I noted that Ferrells co-star Vince Vaughn offers an amusing (if alarmingly pudgy) version of what his breezily amoral Swingers character Trent might turned into if/when he’d ever managed to grow up. Vaughn, however, is Gollum-thin these days compared with Jon Favreau the Swingers star and writer who (functionally) directs Elf and cameos as a doctor. Its good to see Favreau doing well but not good at all to see he’s become so worryingly fat. Unless, of course, that’s some kind of prosthetic false face he’s wearing on screen

** Strictly speaking, Buddie he’s named after nappy brand Little Buddie Diapers.

by Neil Young