Monday, December 13, 2010

Elf (2003)

I'm convinced that Elf was supposed to be a bad movie, but that, somewhere along the line, someone screwed up and wound up creating something brilliant.

Consider the concept for a moment: this was obviously green-lit to be a Will Ferrell vehicle, where he plays a human raised in Santa's workshop who travels to New York to meet his family.  In addition, the script included one or more jokes based on each of the following: belching, vomiting, and eating disgusting and/or discarded food.

Yeah.  Clearly, this wasn't supposed to be a good movie.  It was supposed to be the lowest level of childrens entertainment: something that comes out, parents brings their five year-olds to see, then everyone - kids included - goes home disappointed.  That's all it had any right to be.

But apparently some producer at New Line didn't get the memo, because they hired Jon Favreau to direct it.  By the way, if you're looking for evidence that Favreau is a visionary, don't point to Iron Man (any director worth a damn could have churned out a solid flick with Downey, Jr. and that source material); point to this.  Because, like I said, by all rights this should have been awful.

It certainly shouldn't have been a classic.  Or one of the best Christmas movies ever made.

I've given this movie a lot of thought over the years in an attempt to figure out how Favreau managed to get the movie he ended up with.  After this viewing, I think I've finally got it.

The obvious approach to this movie would have been to treat it like a parody.  But Favreau approaches it like a fantasy film, then approaches that fantasy film as a character-driven drama.  Sure, the setting is derived from Rudolph, Miracle on 34th Street, and dozens of other holiday classics.  But he treats that setting - and the people living within it - with respect.  He takes the movie seriously, trusting the comedy to emerge on its own.  And it does - this is one the funniest holiday movies out there.
It also might be one of the most touching.

I've spoken to quite a few people who have told me they're reluctant to give this movie a shot because they - and I'm quoting here - "hate Will Ferrell."  I appreciate that sentiment (until I saw Elf, I used to share it).  But trust me on this one: Elf is a film you need to track down.  If not for me, do it for Jon Favreau: that guy gave us two Iron Man movies, as well as the upcoming Cowboys and Aliens: he's earned the benefit of the doubt.

3 comments :

  1. That hits on what is really the central tenant of making good parody movies: they should NEVER be treated like parodies. Parodies are crap. I wonder if there a principle hidden somewhere that says you should make a drama like a comedy and a comedy like a drama. Maybe not. Anyway, I don't like Elf as much as you do, but I still agree completely with your assessment. I probably WOULD like it as much as you do if I had seen in sooner (and not heard for half a decade how good it was).

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  2. I would like to argue that Will Farrell is the reason this movie rocks. Now I'm not a mega Farrell fan, but I think he has real comedic chops AND he can pull off drama (as he proves in his role in Stranger than Fiction). It's Farrell who sells the Elf story for me. Anyone else in this role wouldn't have been able to imbue it with the same mix of innocence, exuberance, and love that he manages. Now I will give Favreau props for directing him this way and allowing this film to be good and not an Ace Venture type travesty. Farrell, like Al Pacino, needs a strong director to know when to reel him in. He can be over the top, but that's what he does. Any good director could have kept him in line. Favreau is just a really good director. If say, a director like Peter Weir had seen the potential in this movie and directed it with Farrell it would have been just as good. But take Farrell out of this equation and regardless if the director Elf would have been 100% crap.

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  3. I do actually like Farrell in the role, but I don't think he's either the reason it works or the only actor who could have pulled it off.

    You're right to mention that an "Ace Ventura" approach would have been awful - Carrey was originally attached back in '93, when the script first appeared, and it's a damn good thing he was replaced in the 10 years it took someone to get around to making it.

    If, on the other hand, the movie had been delayed a few more years, I can imagine it being made with Steve Carell, and there's no reason that couldn't have turned out just as good (arguably better)... assuming it had a similar tone and was put together as well (i.e. still directed by Favreau).

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