If only there really were a Santa, and he really had a Naughty list, and there really were consequences for getting oneself on that list. Then we could at least hope for lumps of coal to be distributed to the guilty parties behind Elf. But there is no Santa, and the world is full of Naughty people who not only go coal-free but get bonuses for their Naughtiness when it doesn’t even try to appeal to anything beyond the lowest-common denominator and becomes a huge hit.
Cuz you know Elf will be huge. It features an overgrown manchild, which, creepy as that almost always is, people seem to find funny. It features slapstick physical humor that fails to adhere to any internal logic, which, as obvious and tired as that almost always is, people seem to find funny. And it’s about Christmas, which, as poorly conceived and executed as many holiday movies are, people seem to find irresistible. Like a tacky Wal-Mart sweatshirt bedecked with sequined snowmen or a cheesy made-in-China faux porcelain figurine of an angel, Elf is a Christmas tchotchke. It will be purchased unthinkingly in a moment of holiday fervor, and when it falls apart in the wash on December 26th or gets knocked onto the floor by the cat on New Year’s Eve, no one will miss it.
Like the sweatshirt or the angel, Elf has no magic. It’s weighed down by a desire to startle a laugh that’s sheer physical reaction rather than one prompted by an involvement in its characters or in the gentle silliness of its situation (which is absent, anyway). Can anyone actually genuinely care about Buddy, the human raised by elves at the North Pole? As embodied by Will Ferrell (Old School, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), some people will find him amusing — I don’t see it, myself; I find him almost unbearable idiotic. But personal taste can’t change the inconsistencies of his Buddy that make him less than a believable person. Is he merely naive? Or is he actually a little mentally retarded? I suppose there’d be a place for Radio Meets Miracle on 34th Street, a place far, far away from me, where a very huggy elf who’s, well, not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree teaches everyone else — you know, all us “smart” people too dumb to understand the true meaning of Christmas — how to be jolly and merry and other things that sound like the names of hobbit children.
Elf is not quite that movie, but not for trying. (That’s how Naughty Elf is: It can’t even succeed at schmaltz.) Ferrell — and everyone else involved — can’t seem to figure Buddy out. You’ve seen the clip a thousand times — it’s been all over television promos and the film’s previews — of Buddy striding in front of a yellow cab in New York City, getting knocked down, and jumping up to apologize to the cabdriver. That’s funny — he’s so innocent that he apologizes to a New York City cabdriver, whom everyone knows are the worst drivers in the world. That’s the kind of elf-out-of-water comedy screenwriter David Berenbaum and director Jon Favreau (Made) think the whole movie is made of. As an indication of Buddy’s politeness and sweetness, I think it’s unintended, because there’s not a lot of other evidence that anything offered as humor has any thought behind it except for its potential to elicit an easy laugh. Sure, Buddy grew up in Santa’s workshop and has never been away from this adopted home, so NYC’s gonna be a big, wonderful mystery to him, what with all the revolving doors and elevators and such, but the level of his ability to interact with the world and the people around him seems keyed solely to the opportunity for a cheap laugh. Buddy obviously understands corporate hierarchies — he knows Santa (Edward Asner: Olive, the Other Reindeer, where he also played Santa) is the boss at home — but he can’t seem to comprehend a similar setup at the publishing company run by his biological father (an embarrassed-looking James Caan: Mickey Blue Eyes, This Is My Father). Is Buddy a whiz with the kind of calculus it takes to bean a kid on the head with a snowball at 500 feet, or does he fail to understand the basic laws of physics that even the retarded understand, like the one that says that gravity’s a bitch and not to mess with it? Elf wants to have it both ways.
Ho ho no. It also seems unlikely that Buddy would have failed to learn some basics of social interaction. Would a human raised by the savvy, witty, sophisticated elves we meet at the Pole have bad table manners? Would he drop his tights at the merest hint of a request to do so? If it means Buddy can let off an extended burp during dinner or accidentally flash his stepmother (Mary Steenburgen: I Am Sam, Life as a House), you bet.
It’s hardly even worth going into how ill-used are amazing actors like the droll and luminous Zooey Deschanel (Almost Famous, Mumford), who could be a screwball queen if anyone gave her the chance — here she’s relegated to the half-hearted love interest — or Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent, Human Nature), the dignity he projects snatched away for yet another easy gag.
I’m not even sure why this film is called Elf. Buddy is not an elf. But I guess that’s meant to be amusing, too, this six-foot-something man dressed in green and red felt and prancing about singing of sugar plums. But the real elves here aren’t fey. The real elves are nothing like Buddy: they’re industrious and level-headed and down to earth. What the hell? Extra coal for everyone.