From Will Ferrell, a Ho-Ho-Hum 'Elf'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 7, 2003

Forget your Billy Goats and your Bambino. For pure, intense, vivid and ruinous curses, you have no further to turn than the redoubtable weekend fixture "Saturday Night Live." For nearly three decades it has quite routinely discovered attractive performers, made them famous, dispatched them to the movies, and most often watched them fail miserably.

That pattern is unlikely to be changed with the utterly misbegotten "Elf," which is the first and possibly the last Will Ferrell star vehicle. It's a clumsy, tedious ride that wears out its welcome as it wears out the seat of your pants and the circulation in your lower limbs.

And it employs exactly the same mechanism as the other "SNL" movie failures, such as Chevy Chase's, Chris Kattan's and Molly Shannon's, to name several of those who managed to make a few movies without killing themselves on drugs before their time in the limelight was up.

The mechanism is as simple as it is ruthless: "SNL" regularly finds brilliant sketch artists, and nobody is funnier over the run of a seven-minute routine. But when you take that kind of incisive, cartoony talent and attempt to spin it out over 90 minutes, the results are painful to watch and harmful to listen to.

"Elf" has the makings of a wonderful sketch. The irrepressible, loose-limbed, fearless and funny-looking Ferrell plays a man who, as a baby, crawled into Santa's sack one night and was consequently taken to the North Pole, where he was raised as an elf. Thus the movie's first few jokes are by far its funniest, playing on the tradition of visual surrealism: the gangly Ferrell, clearly an adult male, festooned in green shorts and beanie, trying to fit into a stylized North Pole world that's 36 inches too small for him.

It helps, too, that this first, best section is narrated by Buddy's father-elf, the self-effacing Bob Newhart, who is still funny after all these years. Poor Buddy: He can't join in any elf games, because he keeps bumping his head on doorways or falling out of the tiny furniture. He's clueless, naive and lovable.

But the movie goes seriously awry as it charts Buddy's decision to join the real world, find his real father and have a real life. And how does Buddy get to New York from the North Pole? Why, he walks. They couldn't come up with anything better than that? That was old when "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" did it back in 1953.

The filmmaker, sometime actor Jon Favreau, can never figure out a way to reconcile the highly stylized North Pole settings with the more naturalistic New York. So he just doesn't bother, and counts on his audience not to pay any attention to the jarring contrasts between them. He's as unself-conscious as Buddy.

In New York, it soon turns out that poor Ferrell has but one joke and will play ever-more-desperate variations on it for most of the movie's running time. Bereft of socialization, he always takes at face value the more complex and frequently paradoxical cues of the civilized world, thereby forever making hideous blunders.

Because of his loony outfit, Buddy attaches himself to a Gimbel's toy department at Christmastime, and when Santa is slated for an appearance, he burbles "I know him!" Worse, when some poor schlub shows up in fake beard and red rent-a-costume, he screams, "That's not Santa!" A little of this doesn't go very far at all, but the movie insists on showing us a lot of it.

Some of the casting choices are quite peculiar as well. Who plays the real Santa? If I tell you Edward Asner, you'll probably think I made a mistake, but that is indeed the growly, grouchy, brusque Lou Grant as the least appealing Santa on movie record. And who plays Buddy's real father? If I say Sonny Corleone, you'll probably think I've made another mistake, but in fact that's the Don's oldest son as Dad, with his feral eyes and his ultra-macho posture. James Caan, you deserve so much more.

You can surely intuit the emotional trajectory of "Elf" without actually bothering to see it. You know in advance that Buddy's infectious Christmas innocence will enlighten and inspire the cynical, tired real-world New Yorkers he finds himself among, and that he will help them rediscover the spirit of the world's most idealized holiday. And that's exactly how the movie is engineered to play.

But what you won't have guessed is the ridiculous ending to the film, which puts the Santa fantasy clumsily into the real world, as Santa's jet engine falls off and he ends up crash-landed in Central Park. Because the movie heretofore has had no villains, Favreau, working off a lame script from David Berenbaum, hastily inserts them in the inappropriate form of a mounted squad of New York coppers who are presented more as saber-wielding Cossacks than as the city's finest public servants.

It's a desperate ending to a desperate movie, and so unfunny I forgot to laugh. But you can be thankful for small mercies: At least "Elf" kept Ferrell from making a movie with Cheri Oteri about those loathsome cheerleaders!

Elf (95 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for some less than tasteful humor.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company