Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, Bob Newhart, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen
Finally, I get the chance to balance my earlier viewing of "Bad Santa" with this sweet natured, innocent holiday film featuring Will Ferrell.
I have attempted several times to view this film, and always seemed to arrive a few minutes late and ended up seeing another film. Finally, the day after Christmas I was able to see this film.
The day after Christmas, my Christmas spirit finally arrived. I'll confess that after the first 5 minutes I found myself thinking..."Oh my god, this is going to be such a disappointment." It started off with such sincerity and goofiness and weirdness that I found myself almost disoriented...yet, it was truly only a matter of minutes before I found myself completely captivated by this film's charm, innocence and spirit.
As directed by Jon Favreau, "Elf" has a "go for it" spirit that is beautifully captured by Will Ferrell. This man seems unafraid to completely surrender himself to a role and seems to have complete faith in everything working out in the end. To Ferrell's credit, he pulls off things with this character that actors before him have failed in doing. An example would be Robin Williams and his film "Jack." Williams never quite erased the general "ickiness" of a 40 plus year old man with immense amounts of body hair playing a child. He never quite "surrendered" to the role enough that the childlike innocence and wonder was exhibited clearly. Now, of course, there is a difference here...Ferrell is, in fact, not playing a child. Yet, he is playing the innocence and wonder...he is playing a "child" in the emotional sense who goes off looking for his daddy...and he plays these scenes with such innocence and abandon that you can't help but want him to find the daddy he's always longed for. While I understand Billy Bob Thornton's Golden Globe nomination for "Bad Santa," I can't help but be more impressed by Ferrell's performance here as Buddy.
In supporting roles, there's a wonderful performance by James Caan as Buddy's long-lost father. While I wasn't quite convinced by his abrupt change from money and success oriented to "let's go find Buddy," I still loved the attitude and conviction of his performance.
There were other performers here that I didn't expect...I'd not heard that Mary Steenburgen was in this film, and what a perfect fit. Her performance as James Caan's wife and Buddy's new "mom" was just beautiful. This is my favorite kind of role for Steenburgen!
Zooey Deschanel as "Jovie" the cute Elf who Buddy "falls for" also does a nice job. What I appreciated here was the Favreau kept the attraction innocent. It never went beyond a kiss, and never went beyond the childlike qualities of "Buddy." If I have had one complaint about the film "Big," it's that we move from Tom Hank's innocence in seeing Elizabeth McGovern's bra...to his becoming "experienced." I couldn't help but think about the fact that she'd just done a 13-year-old...it took an otherwise innocent film and made it a bit creepy. This film wisely chose to remain innocent.
Other strong performances include Ed Asner as Santa, Peter Dinklage as Miles, Faizon Love as the Gimbel's Manager and Daniel Tay as the young Michael. Unexpected appearances were turned in by the wonderful Andy Richter and Kyle Gass (of "Tenacious D" fame). In a smaller role, I also enjoyed the performance of Claire Lautier as the reporter covering Santa's landing in New York.
I was disappointed with the performance of comedy legend Bob Newhart as Papa Elf...While the role itself is certainly not fully developed, Newhart's performance was almost too sleepy at times. I was aware the performance was supposed to be dry, but it felt too dry.
The film's set design and costume design are a throwback to classic Christmas specials, and it works beautifully. Finally, a film that captures the spirit of Christmas without resorting to the glitz and glamour of films such as "Grinch" and "Cat in the Hat." Those films pale in comparison to this one. "Elf" also features a wonderful soundtrack.
"Elf" is not a perfect film, but I can't help but think that Christmas films should strive for less perfection and more spirit. "Elf" captures the spirit that I long to have during the holiday season. It made me laugh constantly, cry occasionally and believe in Santa once again. I highly recommend this film.