Just in time for the post-Election Day blues comes Elf, the season's first Christmas blockbuster. As resistant as I am to forced holiday bonhomie, particularly in early November, Elf is a jolly, light-footed and ingratiating affair. (That it will probably make lots and lots of money is an issue entirely unrelated to Christmas.)
The endearingly silly premise of this Jon Favreau-directed effort is that Will Ferrell plays an innocent named Buddy who believes he's one of Santa's elves. One Christmas Eve, 30 years ago, the infant Buddy had stowed away in Santa's bag and accompanied him back to the North Pole. The elves took in their human foundling and raised him as one of their own (Bob Newhart plays Buddy's adoptive father).
But young Buddy soon outgrows Elfland--he's much too big for them and for the charming, Tim Burton-esque North Pole set that they live in. Worse, he's doing so badly as a toolmaker that he's been designated a "special" elf and sent to the quality assurance department. Fortunately, Santa (Ed Asner) has a mission for him, just as he did for that other outcast, Rudolph. It seems that the Christmas spirit is flagging in New York City, thus rendering Santa's spirit-fueled sleigh nearly inoperable. So the doughty Buddy sets off on foot for Manhattan, finally arriving through the Lincoln Tunnel. He lands a job at a Macy's-like department store and makes initially unsuccessful attempts to connect with his long-lost father, who has turned into such a bastard over the years that he's now on Santa's Naughty List.
Will Buddy reunite with his father? Will he restore Christmas spirit to New York City? Of course he will, but fortunately, the film wears its holiday sentimentality lightly, with amusing nudges towards treacly chestnuts such as Miracle on 34th St. and It's a Wonderful Life.
If there's a problem with the execution of the smoothly purring machine that is Elf, it's that there's not much more to Will Ferrell's Buddy than a recurring Saturday Night Live character--he's all innocence and idiocy and little else. As a result, the fizz in this confection goes flat as quickly as cheap champagne. Fortunately, Favreau has filled out the cast with skillful performers who give more weight to their roles than the script probably deserves. James Caan plays Will's hardass biological father with a sliver of the edge that made him so electrifying in his youth, while Mary Steenburgen, as his wife, brings life to her minimal role. Andy Richter and Amy Sedaris turn up as office underlings and Peter Dinklage (soon to be seen here to greater effect in The Station Agent) gets to commit a very satisfying act of violence against the dopey Ferrell.
Best of all (for some of us, anyway) is Zooey Deschanel, who plays a lonely and impoverished co-worker of Buddy's. This young actress has been knocking out one sparkling turn after another, ranging from Jennifer Aniston's snotty co-worker in The Good Girl to the emotionally adrift small town teenager at the center of All the Real Girls. In this film, she's photographed to resemble Reese Witherspoon. Although Deschanel doesn't have the manic energy of the Legally Blond star, she has a secretive hipness all her own and it's a pleasure to see her so generously used in a big Hollywood film.
If Elf urges us to buck up our holiday spirit by shopping and smiling, the Canadian indie film My Life Without Me serves up a secular gloss on the True Meaning of Jesus' birth and death. Canuck indie darling Sarah Polley (Go, The Sweet Hereafter) plays Ann, a young woman trapped in a life that never really began. Only in her early 20s, she's living in a trailer with her high school sweetheart and two young daughters--the first of whom was born when Ann was 17. Her husband Don (Scott Speedman) installs swimming pools during the day and at night Ann works as a janitor at the local university. Her lonely, aging and embittered mother (Deborah Harry) lives next door. How about Dad? Well, he's in prison.
It's a hard life, but it's the kind of thing you can survive when you're young and you have your health. But the luckless Ann soon finds out that she has terminal ovarian cancer, with about three months left to live. Polley plays the scene of grim diagnosis well, opting for shock, wonder and acceptance and steering clear of the expected hysterics. The power of this scene is considerably diluted, however, by writer and director Isabel Coixet's strange decision to cast a distracting, sinister-looking actor (Julian Richings) in the role of a troubled physician who breaks the bad news.
Shaking off the shock of a premature death sentence, Ann keeps her cool and calmly sorts through her priorities. Unfortunately, the first decision she makes has the effect of souring the entire enterprise, for Ann elects not to inform her family and friends of the true reason for her health problems. Anyone who has suffered because they were kept ignorant of a loved one's health crisis will be annoyed, then infuriated, by this film's lack of interest in the morality of such a decision.
Still, having made this decision, Ann makes a list of things to do before she dies. A couple of items are frivolous (getting false nails, drinking and smoking recklessly) while others are unquestionably urgent (telling her daughters she loves them and visiting her father in jail). But there are a couple of considerably more problematic items, including finding a new mother for her daughters and making love to another man.
Ann's quest for a new replacement mother is the stuff of Hollywood fantasy in which she hunts down available women and, with minimal explanation, invites them to meet her family. (Conveniently, there's an attractive newcomer to the neighborhood living right next door.) Although the Mommy hunt is a sentimental stretch, the film becomes a little more interesting when Ann meets a sensitive, literate hunk named Lee, who's played by Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count on Me), as quiversome and gosh-darn-vulnerable as ever. Although it's understandable that a 23-year-old woman who's only made love to one man would wonder what she's been missing, Coixet treats this affair as Ann's deathright and there's little examination of the fundamental callousness and selfishness of her behavior.
The complacent treatment of death and renewal contained in this film recalls the self-satisfaction, if not the artistry, of Almodvar's Talk to Her. This may not be a coincidence, for Almodvar serves as executive producer on My Life Without Me and Leonor Watling, the actress who played the comatose ballerina in Talk to Her, appears here as an angelic pediatric nurse.
Elsewhere, there's a fair amount of Indiewood badness in this film, most notably in the strained, heroically unfunny secondary characters. For instance, there's a dreadlocked female hair dresser who's obsessed with restoring the good name of Milli Vanilli, that sham pop act from the late 1980s. Not laughing yet? How about the stereotyped hard-bitten blond waitress at the diner--here called Dorothy, not Flo--who's saving money for cosmetic surgery that will make her look like Cher? Or the food-and-fat-obsessed flake played by Amanda Plummer? Unsurprisingly, all of these "quirky" and "amusing" characters eventually receive the beneficence of Ann as she trudges up to Calvary.
Unimpressed by the poesy of the film's title, a friend quipped, "Why don't they just call it Death?" In fact, the title is pretty inaccurate, for the always riveting Polley carries the film with gravity and poise, thus proving that This Film Without Sarah Polley would be utterly moribund.