Journey of elf-discovery

Playing at area theaters
Two-and-a-half reels out of four

When I was a kid, I had this thing about coleslaw. I hated it with a passion. That hasn’t changed. Wolfgang Freaking Puck himself could whip me up a custom batch of coleslaw from heaven and my reaction would be the same. To borrow a line from The Carol Burnett Show, "Oooh ahh icky poo!"

Will Ferrell, for me, is the comic equivalent of coleslaw. I just don’t like him and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that. Even if one were to surround him with a decent script, an interesting story, clever dialogue and an excellent supporting cast, I would still have to face the fact that Ferrell was the star.

In Elf, Ferrell plays Buddy, one of Santa’s helpers. Try as he might, he just doesn’t fit in. When every other elf can make 1,000 Etch-a-Sketches a day, Buddy can only manage a paltry 85. And then there’s the matter of his gigantic size.

After Buddy is demoted to quality control, his dad (the marvelous Bob Newhart) tells Buddy that he is human and his biological father (James Caan) is still alive and living in New York. Buddy sets out for the Big Apple with nothing but his elf uniform (don’t dare call it a costume) and his indomitable Christmas spirit. Although at first Buddy comes off as somewhat of a weirdo to hardened New Yorkers, he eventually wins everyone over and connects with his father.

To his credit, director Jon Favreau does as much with this idea as can possibly be done. Actually, he outdoes himself. At times Elf manages to be both very funny and quite touching. Some of the set pieces are absolutely brilliant. Also a nice touch is the homage to the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer stop-action cartoon of my childhood. Several characters are created in the style of the children’s classic.

The supporting cast is quite excellent. Caan comes off very well, pretty much just being Caan. I’d like to see more of him in lighter fare. He’s a great straight man. Newhart and Ed Asner also make contributions. But it’s Peter Dinklage — who can be seen in the indie The Station Agent — who steals the show as a diminutive hotshot children’s author who’s just a tad sensitive about his height.

Let’s face it: Comedy is subjective. You can theorize until the cows come home about why people laugh, but it still comes down to personal taste. For my own taste, Will Ferrell is just not that funny. He takes things way past funny and just keeps on going.

Which is a shame, because Elf has an awful lot going for it. It’s sweet but not sentimental. It’s funny but not crude. But I could not get past Ferrell. Whether or not that’s an issue for you is your problem. Good luck.

Recommended rental

In Mandarin Chinese with subtitles
Available Tuesday (VHS only)

Together is a charming if slightly sentimental movie that easily could be adapted into a much more sentimental and less charming American version. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen. The film concerns a young violin prodigy from the provinces in China who goes to Peking in hopes of getting into the prestigious conservatory. At first he finds a teacher whom he likes but his overprotective father doesn’t. The teacher won’t get the boy his big chance that the father wants so desperately for him. Together is a little corny at times, but is that always a bad thing?