Early in the mediocre holiday comedy Elf, as North Pole craftsmen busily prepare Monopoly sets and Etch-A-Sketches for kids on the “nice” list, two elves lament the decline of Christmas spirit in the modern world. Apparently, one of them reports, many people think there’s no Santa Claus, and that parents really provide the toys on Christmas morning. “Impossible!” the other one says. Like many moments in Elf, this exchange is meant to reassure children while casting a conspiratorial wink to the adults in the audience, but the joke is so transparent that it seems more likely to add to preteen disillusionment. A kissing cousin to 1988's notorious Scrooged–another Christmas fable that grapples with New York City cynicism–Elf clearly doesn’t believe the yuletide sentiments it’s peddling, which doesn’t affect the comedy but torpedoes the heartwarming ending. The remainder of the film mostly hangs on Will Ferrell, whose wide-open face and amusingly gawky frame generally promise more laughs than he seems capable of delivering. But here, his gleeful, near-psychotic enthusiasm carries the day, wiping some of the flop sweat off director Jon Favreau’s aggressively wacky and ingratiating plea for holiday cheer. Not since fellow man-child Adam Sandler donned a searing blue suit for Punch-Drunk Love has a costume done so much for an actor: In his oversized green smock with yellow tights and pointy shoes, Ferrell’s fish-out-of-water character looks almost three-dimensional, and his already-imposing presence balloons into something like The Hulk. An orphan accidentally scooped up by Santa (Ed Asner) and raised by elves at the North Pole, Ferrell doesn’t realize that he’s human until his adopted father (Bob Newhart) explains why he isn’t hitting the toy-making quotas of his pint-sized peers. When he journeys to the Empire State Building to seek out birth father James Caan, Ferrell finds a cold, embittered Grinch who doesn’t have time for his own family, let alone a slap-happy freak claiming to be his long-lost son. Cast out into the streets, Ferrell finds refuge at a department store, where he works for a rummy Santa-for-hire with the charming Zooey Deschanel. In spite of his faults as a filmmaker (choppy pacing, indifferent camera placement, an overeager need to please), Favreau and his producers have impeccable taste in casting. In addition to the inspired choices of Asner and Newhart, as well as Caan and indie darling Deschanel, Elf also pairs Andy Richter with Tenacious D’s Kyle Gass, brings back the underappreciated Mary Steenburgen, and taps The Station Agent’s Peter Dinklage for a scene-stealing cameo. The cast wrings laughs out of David Berenbaum’s script as if it were a damp washcloth, but even they have trouble selling frenetic button-pushing as the Christmas spirit. It’s one thing to believe Will Ferrell as a man who thinks he’s an elf; it’s another to believe in Santa Claus, too.
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