For Will Ferrell, Christmas this year came early and often, and he's received what every good little SNL cast member asks of Santa: a sustainable movie career. Ferrell currently has three films in post-production, including Luke and Owen Wilson's The Wendell Baker Story. He's filming three as we speak, one of them a Woody Allen movie. And, as of right now, he's slated for big roles in two pre-production projects: as Darrin in Bewitched and as Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces. If all of that is a professional package to die for (and it is), then Elf is the big, shiny bow stuck right on top.
The story of a human orphan who's been raised by North Pole elves and now must find his way (and his biological father) in the big city, Elf is long on charm, if short on story. Director Jon Favreau signals his intention of making a modern Christmas classic in a title sequence that mirrors those familiar Rudolph and Frosty specials. Elf also includes a Scroogey character (a typically exasperated James Caan) who must be taught a lesson, and -- surprise! -- a Christmas that, at some point, must be saved. Still, the mostly tissue-thin plot matters only a whit next to Ferrell's mustard-color tights and big, hilarious heart. This funny man's biggest comedic asset is making us believe he isn't in on the joke (as opposed to, say, Mike Myers). There's not an ounce of irony or guile in Ferrell's perfectly played Buddy the Elf, whether he's encountering a department-store Santa ("You sit on a throne of lies," he hisses) or almost accidentally winning the heart of shopgirl Jovie (Zooey Deschanel).
Ferrell is immeasurably aided by the presence of Bob Newhart (as the adoptive, adaptive Papa Elf) and Ed Asner (as a perfect piss-and-vinegar Santa), but the third act of the film devolves into a second-rate action-adventure sequence when all we really want is more Buddy. Ultimately, though, Elf sufficiently satisfies the tots in the audience while amusing their adult companions -- if not an instant Christmas classic, then at least one that makes for a cooler Yule. -- Carlson