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156 NOVEMBER 6, 2003
  Favreau and Ferrell Make the Christmas Comedy Genre Enjoyable
  By Jeremy Mathews
Will Ferrell is twice as big as anyone who lives in the North Pole, except for Santa, in Jon Favreau's "Elf."  

Newline Cinema
Directed by Jon Favreau
Written by David Berenbaum
Produced by Jon Berg, Todd Komarnicki and Shauna Weinberg
Starring Will Ferrell, James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen, Daniel Tay, Bob Newhart, Edward Asner and Jane Bradburry
Rated PG
(out of four)

Perhaps the only way to make a sweet, sticky, sincere family Christmas comedy work in this age is to frame it in cynicism. “Elf” does just that, placing a jollily extreme performance by Will Ferrell in a world that responds to his insane behavior the same way that most people would respond to a man whom elves raised. Ferrell’s character might be an obnoxious maniac, but he’s a sweet obnoxious maniac who believes the things that everyone wants to believe and eats candy for every meal—with maple syrup on his spaghetti.

As an orphaned baby, Ferrell’s character Buddy crawled into Santa’s toy bag and wound up on the North Pole, where elves raised him. As his adopted father Pappa Elf, Bob Newhart narrates the story and reveals that elves either make shoes while the cobbler sleeps, bake cookies in trees (a serious fire hazard) or make toys in Santa’s workshop, the Time job known as “the show.”

Writer/director Jon Favreau, who made 2001’s “Made” and wrote and starred in the cult favorite “Swingers,” isn’t known for family films. This may be the source of the refreshingly smart humor in “Elf.” While uncredited for the original screenplay by David Berenbaum, Favreau’s nuances and clever details surface in the dialogue.

The portrait of the North Pole is a clever collection of elements from old storybooks and TV Christmas specials. A fake, mustached snowman, toy animals and the Candy Cane Forest all make appearances.

Buddy manages to live completely oblivious to the easily observed fact that he’s not an elf, but a human more than twice his father’s—and any other elf’s—size. After failing to produce thousands of toys a day like the other elves and overhearing an eye-opening conversation, Buddy realizes that he’s human. Worse, when Santa tells him about the news, he reveals that Buddy’s father is on the naughty list.

A brilliantly cast James Caan plays Buddy’s biological father, a workaholic children’s book publisher who is introduced to the film while demanding money from nuns for books in their children’s hospital. Mary Steenburgen plays Buddy’s stepmom, and Daniel Tay plays his stepbrother, Michael, both of whom receive the new family member better than the father.

After a paternity test, a doctor (Favreau) tells Buddy’s father that his son is repressed and he needs to raise him as if he were a child to help him snap out of thinking that he lived with Santa.

Buddy walks from the North Pole to New York City, where he still wears his sharp, green elf wardrobe, which gets him temporarily mistaken for a department-store employee. At the store, he meets Jovie, played by the majestic Zooey Deschanel, who brings a mystified spirit to the part. Buddy scares her a bit with a level of friendliness that’s usually identified with insanity, but also charms her with his energy and innocence.

Not all the material works, like the climax of the sequence in which the funny Peter Dinklage (“The Station Agent,” also opening this weekend) plays a writer who helps Buddy’s dad develop a new book idea for his failing company. The joke of Buddy’s ignorance gets old at times.

Fortunately, Ferrell plays Buddy in a balls-out performance. Other actors might have been timid, but Ferrell does whatever he needs to do to get a laugh. Even when the material isn’t quite working, it’s still fun to watch him in action, as he stays up all night to decorate the department store with Christmas lights, Etch-A-Sketches, Night Brights and anything else he can find in the store—just because he heard that Santa was coming tomorrow.

The film takes on a dry wit in its cheesiness. Santa’s sled needs fuel to supplement the Christmas spirit, Pappa Elf tells Buddy, because people don’t believe in Santa anymore. There’s a rumor that the parents put the presents under the tree. “I suppose they eat the cookies, too!” Buddy responds.

This type of humor helps balance “Elf’s” sentimentality and create a smarter, wiser film than the average Christmas comedy.

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