Movie review by Greg Carlson
When popular SNL alum Will Ferrell left the show for the treacherous waters of feature filmmaking, he followed a long line of performers whose careers have met with varying degrees of success. For every Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray and Mike Myers there are dozens of black holes representing the likes of Joe Piscopo, Kevin Nealon, and Victoria Jackson. Ferrell was in fine form in “Old School,” but that was a supporting role in an ensemble frat comedy. “Elf,” the first major vehicle for the comic, is the movie by which his immediate job security will be measured.
The good news, for Ferrell fans, is that “Elf” works – and it works because of Ferrell. Based on the movie’s previews – human manchild grows up at the North Pole thinking he is an elf – there was good reason to be skeptical. Every holiday season, a handful of appalling, feel-good, “family” comedies turn up at the movie house, struggling in vain to be the next “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Miracle on 34th Street.” While most of this distressing slag (think “The Santa Clause” or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” – the Ron Howard feature, not the great1966 animated TV version) makes you want to cry out “humbug!” in your loudest Alastair Sim impression, “Elf” manages to be cheerful, fun, and full of fancy.
Following a visually dazzling extended prologue in which Papa Elf (a dry, delightful Bob Newhart) explains the back story of his adopted human son, Buddy (Ferrell) decides he must seek out his biological father, a crass children’s book publisher who works in the Empire State Building. Ferrell does the usual fish out of water routine in Manhattan, trying to make friends with jaded New Yorkers, congratulating the proprietors of a greasy spoon that claims to serve the “world’s best cup of coffee,” and running himself silly in revolving doors. Once the major sight gags are exhausted, Buddy takes a job as – what else? – a department store elf.
Ferrell breathes life into the most implausible of characters, but it is Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, Buddy’s co-worker and love interest, who completes the audience buy-in. Jovie is a wise-beyond-her-years cynic with enough wit and sass to slice through the phony goodwill expected of everyone during the holidays. Unfortunately, David Berenbaum’s script misplaces her for a good chunk of the movie, but when she is onscreen, the movie sparkles (the singular highlight of “Elf” is a sweet duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” between Deschanel and Ferrell).
The plot of “Elf” is as predictable as they come, but director Jon Favreau (who also enjoys a cameo as a doctor) clearly relishes working with such talented performers, and vets James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, and Ed Asner look like they are having a blast. Peter Dinklage, wonderful in “The Station Agent” earlier this year, practically steals the movie as a hotshot author insulted by the naïve Buddy at a book pitch session. It is Ferrell, though, who conjures up consistent laughs with his unique characterization. He plays Buddy absolutely straight, and in the process manages to convince the audience of the overgrown Elf’s conviction and sincerity.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/10/03.