Will Ferrell is the heir apparent to Chevy Chase, with his dry, deadpan delivery of the most absurd of jokes. It works particularly well in Elf because his truly naive character is not even in on the joke.
So why doesn’t Elf work better? Too much “uplifting” good cheer, and not enough of those jokes that work for Ferrell.
Sugar and Syrup
PG for Mild rude humor and language
Ferrell plays Buddy the elf. He’s actually a human, but as an infant he crawled into Santa’s sack while Santa was delivering presents to the orphanage. So Santa’s elves (in particular one played by Bob Newhart) raised Buddy as one of their own, in spite of his being three times their size.
Buddy doesn’t have the small, skilled hands of an elf, so he always makes a mess of things at the North Pole. He decides to try to find his real father in a magical place called New York City.
Since New Yorkers don’t believe in elves, the naive Buddy cuts a crazy figure walking the streets in his green felt outfit. Many of the movie’s better jokes come from this clash of cultures: department-store Santas, advertising copy, business protocol — even cuisine (elves love sugar and syrup on everything).
Dear Old Dad
James Caan is well cast as the straight man in this comedy. Caan learns that he is Buddy’s father. When he’s finally convinced it’s not a joke, he is stunned and embarrassed. After all, he had left Buddy to an orphanage. His wife and daughter are shocked, but they’d be even more disappointed in dad if he were to turn his back on Buddy.
The comedy ends when the movie’s conflict starts. Christmas is threatened. To save Christmas, Buddy’s dad and the rest of New York need to stop thinking Buddy is insane and start believing he’s real. That will boost the Christmas spirit enough to save Santa’s sleigh. The laughs are replaced by holiday cheer, and the sugar and syrup have moved from the food jokes to the movie’s tacked-on sentiment.
Overall, Elf is on the verge of tolerable. The best jokes earn the movie enough coasting time that the dry spells between them aren’t so bad. Ferrell’s unflagging energy lets him pull some funny stunts. The first we learn of his sugar fixation is when he chugs a 2-liter bottle of Coke. When he visits his dad’s office and the phone rings, he answers it “BuddytheElf, What’syourfavoritecolor?” And somehow, it is very funny to see Buddy stand in awe before the diner with the “world’s best cup of coffee.”
But the jokes are sparse and the schmaltzy ending is just a little too much to ask. Ninety-five minutes of Elf are about twice too many.