directed by John Favreau
(New Line, 2003)
I've been collecting Christmas movies for more years than I can count, first on Betamax (See, I told you it's been a long time), and now on VHS. Over the years my collection has grown to include no fewer than 15 films, from very obvious but wonderful stuff like A Christmas Story and Holiday Inn to John Ford's Three Godfathers and Preston Sturges' Miracle of Morgan's Creek.
Come Thanksgiving, I dust them off and watch them one by one -- as a respite from shopping or as ambiance while I address my cards -- but always starting (of course) with Miracle on 34th Street and culminating in a much-anticipated viewing of Christmas in Connecticut (the Barbara Stanwyck version, of course) on Christmas Eve.
It's a motley batch that includes two versions of Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol (Alistair Sim's and Reginald Owen's), as well as much less appreciated films like 1989's Prancer and 1942's Larceny Inc., with Edward G. Robinson and Broderick Crawford (not the people you usually associate with Christmas).
But one film that's not likely to enter the collection is Elf, the story of a non-elf orphan (Will Ferrell) raised by North Pole elves and his journey to the Southland (New York City) to meet his biological father (James Caan).
So far, so good. We have two wonderful performers -- after repeated viewings of Elf I hesitate to call Ferrell an actor -- and an original idea. But like so many original ideas, this one quickly picks up a top-heavy entourage of imitations, as writer David Berenbaum and director Jon Favreau leave no cliche unturned in their relentless pursuit of a holiday hit.
Take the characters Buddy the Elf (Ferrell) gets involved with in New York City.
First there's his Scrooge-like father, Walter (Caan), a publishing exec who's so money-mad mean (surprise!) he repossesses books from schools that can't pay the bills. Then there's Walter's neglected wife (Mary Steenburgen) who thinks (surprise!) that taking in Buddy is just what their family needs, and Walter's even more neglected son, Michael (Daniel Tay), who thinks his father is only interested in (surprise!) money.
But none of them can compare with Buddy's would-be co-worker at Gimbel's toy land, Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), a disaffected twentysomething who has a great singing voice but who won't (surprise!) sing in public until (surprise!) Christmas Eve. Can you believe they wind up dating? Gosh, why couldn't I have thought of that?
Still, we might be able to survive all this if it weren't for the nonfamily conflict that drives the larger story -- people's loss of faith in (surprise!) Christmas. It's gotten so bad -- as measured by the Clausometer on Santa's sleigh -- that the old sled can hardly get off the ground anymore.
Any guesses as to who fixes the sleigh and revives the world's Christmas spirit on (surprise!) Christmas Eve?
All that said, Elf has its moments, most of which belong to Ferrell as he bludgeons his way through a world he is in no way ready for (and vice versa). He does a very funny bit in a revolving door and another with New York street people handing out fliers, and his first brush with an escalator is rather inspired. It's fun, too, to watch him in his father's office, sitting on a piggie stool reading Pigmation or answering his dad's desk phone "Buddy the Elf -- what's your favorite color?"
And even Walter's crew has a surprisingly amusing scene in which, to avoid getting fired, they need to brainstorm a best-selling children's book by (surprise!) Christmas Eve. The best they can do -- the best -- turns out to be something about a tribe of asparagus children who are worried about the way their pee smells. Not bad.
But for the most part, Elf is a tale of wasted talent: Bob Newhart with almost nothing funny to say as Buddy's adopted dad; Steenburgen with almost nothing to say; Asner as a low-energy Santa; and Caan with hardly a trace of humanity until his sudden (surprise!) Christmas Eve conversion. Scrooge was a monster, too, but he was a fun monster, even at his Cratchett-crunching worst.
Favreau and Berenbaum, however, offer us little except an attention-deficit-disorder man-elf who, for all his frivolity, suddenly develops a crisis of confidence on (surprise!) Christmas Eve and considers throwing himself off a bridge that looks suspiciously like the one Jimmy Stewart leaped from in It's a Wonderful Life.
The least they could have given us was an original bridge. But then what do you expect from a film that's almost as ADD as its protagonist?
You know, now that I think of it, that asparagus story doesn't sound too bad.