Will Ferrell stands tall in `Elf,' a feel-good family flick in which the rambunctious comic shows his subtle side
Does the name Will Ferrell say "holiday cheer"? Does it evoke Eskimo kisses and unspiked eggnog? Or a fervid belief in Santa, Christmas carols, and hugs? No, but "Elf" does. The movie sets Ferrell's assaultive and juvenile physical comedy in a less-combative playground, and the result might leave the Ferrell-intolerant exiting the theater on a high.
Directed by Jon Favreau from a screenplay by David Berenbaum, "Elf" casts Ferrell as Buddy, a human orphan who has been raised at the North Pole as one of Santa's little helpers. Never mind that watching him sit on the lap of his adoptive father (a shrunken Bob Newhart) is like seeing Yao Ming frolic atop Jeff Van Gundy. Like a giant who has grown up in a doll's house, Ferrell duckwalks through Rusty Smith's delicate-looking sets, and in a feat of rare self-control does not bust them up. Eventually, Buddy catches wind of the news that he's not an elf but the son of a bigwig New York children's-book executive (James Caan).
With the blessing of Santa Claus (Ed Asner) and his adoptive father, Buddy walks from the North Pole to midtown Manhattan. His disbelieving father, Walter, takes a paternity test, which to his dismay is positive. Soon Buddy has moved into his apartment, festooned the place in paper chains and snowflakes, and befriended Walter's wife (Mary Steenburgen, nicely rejuvenated) and his neglected 11-year-old son (Daniel Tay). Walter reluctantly takes his newly arrived son to work and puts him in the mailroom, where hell is promptly raised.
Naturally, the movie is headed for a big, healing family-flick thaw, but Favreau, who as an actor is a sort of big, lovable lug, doles out sentiment without a whole lot of schmaltz. He's responsible for turning "Elf" from a series of amusing sight gags into a sincere piece of feel-good commercialism.
Favreau gets considerable mileage from Ferrell running around the city in yellow tights and a green jacket. That's only slightly stranger than when Buddy starts hanging out in the "North Pole" area of Gimbel's department store (defunct in reality but alive and well here). This ersatz pole -- managed by a teddy bear of a dude (Faizon Love) whose nametag says "Wanda" -- sorely lacks Christmas spirit. Buddy stays overnight and gives the place an authentic polar makeover: lots of lights and cotton snow. And it's long after that he's attacking the fake Santa and falling in love with Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), a dour girl playing the role of an elf on the Gimbel's payroll.
Ferrell's unruly man-child shtick is the secret weapon of most of his movies, and as such his only responsibility is to blast a hole in the proceedings with his rambunctious id. The difference between Ferrell here and his brilliantly unhinged work in "Old School" is -- pardon me -- subtle. He exhibits a nearly human range of feeling in "Elf" that suggests that he may actually be aware of such things as character development and emotional arcs.
As well-behaved and appealing as Ferrell is, Deschanel lights up the movie. She says her lines in the same sort of barbecued way that Debra Winger does, and her eyes are those of a skeptic who wants to believe. In the film's biggest surprise, she sings "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and to her shock is joined by Buddy. Her half of the rendition sounds as balmy as Ella Fitzgerald's and Pearl Bailey's. "Elf" tries earnestly to say that family is the greatest Christmas gift, but by the end of the movie, Deschanel is the only thing we want under the tree.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.