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Elf-ephant


Some things you just can’t explain. You know something is wrong, it’s so big you can’t miss it, but you don’t do anything about it. You let this kid grow up, feeling more and more like a misfit… Eventually, you have to confront him before it’s too late, you have to tell him: “Buddy, you’re not an elf. You’re an orphaned human who, as a baby, crawled into Santa’s bag and ended up in the North Pole, where you were brought up among us elves.”

Eric and Alex, like Buddy the elf, feel that they don’t fit in. They spend every day in a cold, alienating high school, surrounded by bullying jocks and stupid bimbos, then they go home and think bad thoughts. One day, they bring their bad thoughts to school along with bags full of guns and ammo and then it’s too late. You can’t explain it, you knew something was wrong there, it was like an elephant in the living room, you couldn’t miss it, yet nothing was done about it.

“Elf” is a Christmas movie aimed at kids, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s sentimental and super-sweet and full of dumb gags. Yet I was surprised, shocked even at how predictable, trite and unfunny it is for one simple reason: Will Ferrell. Put Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams in that green costume and I would have known what to expect and stayed away accordingly. But Ferrell is always hilarious, right? He’s an insane goofball… right? Well, yeah, but he needs better material than tired fish-out-of-water silliness and holiday schmaltz.

Gus Van Sant was becoming quite the schmaltzmeister for a while, but between Gerry and “Elephant” he’s re-established himself as an artsy independent filmmaker, for better or worse. Van Sant’s last two pictures are sparse and slow, with most of the running time devoted to tracking shots of people walking, in the desert or in high school corridors. An impressionistic account of what might have happened one tragic morning at Columbine, “Elephant” suggests that it was a rather ordinary day in a rather ordinary school, with rather ordinary kids doing rather ordinary things, right up to the point where all hell broke loose.

“Elf” is rather ordinary too, going through the motions of every other Christmas movie. Buddy’s Scrooge-like father (James Caan) will realise the error of his ways, jaded New Yorkers will be filled with Christmas cheer and Buddy the elf will finally fit in, zzzz. Will Ferrell manages to steal a few laughs from the audience here and there, but all the best jokes are in the trailer. The only reason to check out the flick when it inevitably shows up on TV every other December is Zooey Deschanel, the prettiest cutie pie in the world, and she can SING, too!

There is no singing in “Elephant”, but there are plenty of Beethoven piano sonatas, even one played by one of the killers. Other than that it’s more walking, a guy taking then developing pictures, an ugly girl ashamed to wear gym shorts and other things that have nothing and everything to do with anything. There’s a gay subtext to the film, too, in an overt discussion of homosexuality and in a boy-boy kiss in the shower, but also in the loving way Van Sant shoots his young male non-actors. Then again, the openly gay director also fetishises the corridors, the cafeteria, the library… Until the “payoff”, which is riveting, of course, but for what? This is basically an arthouse horror thriller, The Columbine Semiautomatic Rifle Massacre. Cutting away to clouds and Beethoven sonatas doesn’t make this deep, no matter what the Cannes Film Festival judges might think.