Sunday, November 23, 2003

Review by Sombrero Grande

I have to admit I was really looking forward to seeing Elf--not because I was a particularly huge fan of Will Ferrell’s (yet) and not because I was really all that intrigued with the premise, but because I wanted to see what Jon Favreau had done. When I first saw Swingers, Jon’s first screenplay, I fell in love. I was Mikey. At that time I was having dating troubles and Jon’s pitiful protagonist embodied all the “I just wanna sit alone in the corner for days” feelings I couldn’t seem to communicate myself. As I watched Mikey’s tale, I sat there with the big, dopey smile that usually only inhabits my face for Pixar films. Here was a guy--a screenwriter and an actor--who knew how I felt and was conveying it all so genuinely on screen. Oh, and I also laughed my ass off to boot.

So, in 2001, I was excited to see Jon’s new outing with his buddy Vince Vaughn, Made, which Jon not only wrote but directed as well. While not as stellar as Swingers (Swingers is up in Sombrero Grande’s Top 10 All-Time Favorite Movies List), Made proved to be quite enjoyable, more for Jon and Vince’s camaraderie than the story, but the ending proved to be a real heart-warming surprise. One scene--heck--the one shot with the little girl embracing Bobby...perfect. No words were necessary, no swelling of sentimental music, no saccharine crap that other directors would have felt it oh so necessary to enlist at that moment...that moment, the gesture touched me.

Seeing as how I was so impressed with how Favreau managed to get so much real heart-warming emotion with one simple gesture, I was intrigued to see what he could do with a story that begged for that kind of treatment throughout.

Elf is the story of a baby who accidentally stowed away one Christmas Eve in Santa’s bag and ended up at the North Pole where he was then raised by the elves as one of them. Inevitably, “Buddy” eventually feels out of place and, as a grown man, he sets out to find his father whom he’s never known (and who doesn’t even know Buddy exists) in New York City. It’s your standard fish-out-of-water tale with a fantasy twist that tosses in some of the elementss of a buddy comedy and romantic comedy to boot, and by the end, as we all expect, the “Elf” manages to turn every Scrooge into a caroler.

Now, this would be a huge departure for Jon, seeing as how, unlike Swingers and Made, Elf is not rated R (Elf’s PG), is a mainstream Hollywood production instead of a low-budget indie, and is geared mainly for a family audience. Also, Jon didn't write Elf but merely directed it. So how did Jon do? Swimmingly. Elf is sure to be a hit with kids, parents and everyone in between because at its heart this movie’s got...heart. And like ample tinsel on a towering tannenbaum, there are enough real big laughs all over to really make this one stand out.

Every year when the holiday season rolls around, Sombrero Grande relishes the sight of colorful Christmas lights, the sound of familiar carols, the twinkling of tinsel and the general feel of holiday cheer in the crisp, winter air. Apparently, so does Favreau, because Elf is stuffed with more Christmas spirit than a Twinkie is with fat. And I’m happy to report that, like the aforementioned moment in Made and the self pity/frustration in Swingers, the feeling is real.

I have to give a lot of credit as well to Will Ferrell, who is so charming and convincing as Buddy the Elf that I found myself forgetting--even despite his tall stature on the screen--that this was a grown man. So often when a grown actor portrays a child (in, for example, Martin Short's Clifford or Roberto Benigni's Pinocchio), the effect really doesn’t work and the audience needs to continually remind themselves, “that’s supposed to be a kid.” But here, Ferrell’s performance is so full of real child-like wonder and joy that I found myself startled to remember that he’s an adult playing an adult! I wasn't necessarily a fan of Ferrell's going into the film, but I definitely am now.

The casting in this film is perfect. James Caan...Zooey Deschanel...Amy Sedaris...Mary Steenburgen...Faizon Love...all were great, even if I hadn’t always been completely delighted with previous performances of theirs. Ed Asner really surprised me as the most believable Santa I’ve seen in a recent film, and I have to admit I really got a kick out of seeing Bob Newhart, Andy Richter (Conan O’Brien’s old sidekick) and Kyle Gass (half of Tenacious D) show up.

If there’s a blemish on this shiny ornament, it’s the fact that Buddy’s father’s change of heart (you knew it was coming) comes OBSCENELY fast and, to my mind, not nearly motivated enough for such a screeching U-turn. One minute he’s yelling at Buddy to get out of his life forever, and the next...well, it just seemed like the Hollywood cookie-cutter clipped a corner out of sheer convenience.

One more note: the “chase” in the park is a wonderful achievement for Favreau: it’s exciting while at the same time nicely understated, not played up like some Michael Bay forced orgasm.

I’m eager to see what Jon Favreau does next. In my book, he’s 3 for 3 now.


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