Will Ferrell, under wraps, in Elf.

Reviews of the latest films.
Nov. 6 2003 3:54 PM

Little Big Man

Will Ferrell, under wraps, in Elf.

Not quite cowbell caliber, but it works
Not quite cowbell caliber, but it works

Watching Will Ferrell in the new comedy Elf (New Line) is a bit like waiting for a bomb to go off. The last time he appeared onscreen, in Old School, he spent most of his time going berserk. He became Frank the Tank, a member of a "civilian fraternity" who downed funnels of beer, led a solo streaking run, and shot himself in the neck with a tranquilizer dart. All in all, it was the Will Ferrell explosion that his fans had been waiting for. Ferrell's comic genius is that he doesn't look like a maniac but knows how to act like one. He's also capable of unshakeable deadpan. Ferrell's most beloved sketch on Saturday Night Live (where he was a cast member from 1995 until last year) is a parody of VH1's Behind the Music, in which he plays the cowbell as a member of the '70s intellectual rock band Blue Öyster Cult. He really, really wants to tap the cowbell well, and his fierce intensity cracks you up. His fellow cast-mate Jimmy Fallon covers his face with drumsticks to hide his laughter.

At first glance, Elf could easily be confused with an SNL skit, with its simple set design and with Ferrell dressed in yellow tights, black pointed shoes, and a green frock coat. He plays Buddy, an orphan who crawled into Santa's sack as a baby and was raised by the elves. Buddy believes himself to be a genuine wee man, despite the evidence that he's the Yao Ming of the North Pole and the only baritone in the elf choir. His surrogate elf father (Bob Newhart) tells Buddy the truth: He does not suffer from a glandular condition, and his real father, a human, works in the Empire State Building. Buddy treks through Canada and the Lincoln Tunnel to find him. During these early scenes, Ferrell wears a creepy, cheerful grimace. Tick. Tick. Tick. Only a matter of time before he wreaks elf havoc, right?

Advertisement

Actually, no. Ferrell's elfness manifests itself not as arch comedy but as extreme enthusiasm. He smiles and tickles and sings. He's a good argument for elf Ritalin. The only time he really cuts loose is during a New York montage that looks improvised: Buddy waves back at people who are hailing cabs and gleefully takes advertising fliers from the stoic guys who hand them out. For the most part, Ferrell's trademark outbursts have been replaced by sugary sweet moments: Buddy tries to fix Santa's sleigh after it has crashed in Central Park; he admires his father (James Caan) even though Dad refuses to snuggle with him. The intensity that Ferrell usually invests in his comedy has been redirected toward holiday movie clichés, but, in a strange way, it works: He believes in the clichés, and you believe in him.

Elf is rigidly, almost endearingly straight. The director, Jon Favreau, wrote and acted in Swingers (1996), and he seems a likely candidate for a hip, subversive fable, or else some of the cherubic anarchy that Richard Linklater served up in The School of Rock. But Favreau hasn't spiked the hot chocolate; he's made a heartwarming homage to Christmas movies past. The North Pole has a retro look, Buddy ends up at Gimbel's, one of the department stores immortalized in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and there's an animated snowman like the one in the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV specials. The music is chirpy and borderline annoying. But once you rearrange your expectations and give yourself over to the movie's unfailing earnestness, you realize that Favreau and Ferrell do heartwarming fairly well. It's not spoiling anything to say that Buddy falls in love with a girl (Zooey Deschanel), reconciles with his dad, and finds a way to save Christmas. The movie plucks all the old-fashioned notes, with modest, good-spirited vigor. It's irony-free fun for the whole family.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 2 2014 8:07 AM The Dark Side of Techtopia
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 2 2014 6:00 AM Can’t Stomach It I was shamed for getting gastric bypass surgery. Should I keep the procedure a secret?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 2 2014 7:30 AM What Put the Man in the Moon in the Moon?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?