Thursday, December 20, 2007

Elfin magic

So, when S was home sick last Friday, we watched the movie ELF together. I love that movie (and it's soundtrack), and I've been thinking about all the many things that make me laugh about it, and also about the things that make it memorable.

First, let's talk about excellent writing. David Berenbaum wrote an awful lot of great lines and really funny scenes for this movie, but even before he wrote those lines and precise scenes, he had a great premise. What if a human is raised as a North Pole elf, and then sets off into the "real" world with his elfin skills in search of his father. Oh, and let's make the father a perennial member of The Naughty List. Oh, and as a bonus for children's writers, let's make him a children's book publisher. And hey, in case you're curious, I found what looks to be an early version of the script available online. (It is missing some of the lines and scenes that made the movie, but it's got quite a bit there, too.)

Jon Favreau directed this movie, and he really did honor to the script and to the characters. I've loved him since I first saw the movie Swingers, which he wrote. That movie was also my first introduction to Favreau's buddy, Vince Vaughn, who played Trent and was absolutely riveting to watch (he was so money!). But I digress. Back to the excellent writing that is David Berenbaum.

In a scene in which Buddy is eating spaghetti with his father, step mother and step-brother, we find some of my favorite lines (and it's the lines plus the delivery that really sell the first bit, but the final line stands on its own merits).

Buddy pulls some syrup out of his breast pocket and pours it over his spaghetti. Walter and Michael share a disgusted look, the first time they've been in agreement on anything in a while.

EMILY
You like sugar, huh?

BUDDY
Is there sugar in syrup?

EMILY
Yes.

BUDDY
Then yes! We elves try to stick to the four basic food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup.


And there are bits that are equally hilarious, like Buddy running around and around in a revolving door, puking into a trash can, then going back for more. Excellence, all around.

And there's the issue of elf swearing. As when Buddy is struck by a snowball and exclaims "SON of a NUTcracker!", or when he gets down on himself early in the film (while still at the North Pole) and says "I'm a cotton-headed ninny-muggins."

Second, let's talk about commitment.

Will Ferrell is one of the best actors out there when it comes to fully committing to a role. In Elf, he plays Buddy, a human orphan who crawled into Santa's bag and ended up at the North Pole, where he was raised by Poppa Elf (as played by Bob Newhart, who is hilarious in all his deadpan glory). Buddy is now about 30, and finds out he's not an elf when he overhears a conversation between elves in the toy workshop.

Ferrell commits to this role (and all others he's been in, as best I can tell) 100%. (I'd say more, but really, there is no 110% in commitment - you can be all in or less, but not more. If you could be, though, Ferrell would be.) He never once winks at the camera or makes any attempt to distance himself from his character, as if to say, "see folks? it's all an act." Instead, he goes balls out for being a naive elf-raised boy in the city on a quest to find his father, who is (horrors!) on The Naughty List. It was what made Ferrell stand out on SNL, as when he was a Spartan cheerleader, or a high school music teacher trying to be "hip", or a high school kid fervently singing "Message in a Bottle" ("I'm sending out an SOS S-O-S-O-S-OS. Message in a bottle, WOOOOO!")

Ferrell doesn't seem like he's pretending to Buddy the Elf. He is Buddy the Elf, plain and simple. Here's an exchange he has with the "Elf Manager" at Gimbels:

ELF MANAGER
Don't touch the damn snow. What are you smiling at? You think I'm a joke?

BUDDY
Oh no, I'm just smiling. Smiling is my favorite.

ELF MANAGER
Well take it down a notch.

Buddy tries to frown for a second, but his lips quiver and hurt and now he's smiling again, making the exact same face


Buddy's childlike ability to contradict adult/authority figures is great. As when the Gimbels manager tells buddy that it's the North Pole, and Buddy continually retorts, "No it's not", or says there's no singing at the North Pole and Buddy says "Yes there is," or when Buddy sees the fake Santa that Gimbels has hired and goes off on him. My favorite quote from the fake Santa confrontation is not Buddy's "You disgust me", but his parting line "You sit on a throne of lies!"

Why the film is memorable, in my opinion

It's the combination of excellent writing and commitment (by the writer, the director, and the cast) that makes a film truly memorable. Another holiday film which is memorable, and in which the leading man committed just as much as Will Ferrell, is It's A Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart was a terrific actor, and he committed fully to the role of George Bailey. It's a different role, but both of these movies have great writing, excellent directors, and 100% committed leading men. And it's what makes them standouts among holiday movies, if you ask me. Which, come to think of it, you didn't.

What this has to do with writing

It takes a great premise, excellent writing and 100% commitment to make something truly memorable. Any of those three ingredients alone may get you published, by the way, but it won't get you something truly memorable. Unless you are writing a book with an intrusive narrator, it is never okay to wink at your reader ("wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more, say no more"). You have to stay in the writing and be committed to it and its characters. The characters you write have to be committed to being real, too - they can't be some half-assed sketch of a character or some flat stereotype that's there for filler. No, they aren't being played by actors - they're simply fictional characters on the page. But they have to really be themselves, not just some stick figure thrown in by the author as a tool. And I think many of us have been vaguely disappointed by books where there's excellent writing and commitment, but in the end, the premise wasn't truly great enough to justify it.

So, my advice to writers? Go watch Elf. And not just so you can get tips from the great children's author, Miles Finch, played with panache by Peter Dinklage.

MILES FINCH
No tomatoes. They're too vulnerable. Kids, they're already vulnerable.

WALTER
See? I told you guys. I told them the same thing . . .

MILES FINCH
And no farms. Everyone's pushing small town rural. A farm book would just be white noise.


If you've seen the film and/or know who Peter Dinklage is, you know that he's a little person. In the film, Buddy mistakes him for an elf, leading to one of the funniest scenes - a smack-down by Dinklage:

BUDDY
Did you have to borrow a reindeer to get down here?

MILES FINCH
Hey, jackweed, I get more action in a week than you've had in your entire life. I've got houses in L.A., Paris and Vail. In each one, a 70 inch plasma screen. So I suggest you wipe that stupid smile off your face before I come over there and SMACK it off! You feeling strong, my friend? Call me elf one more time.

BUDDY
[after a pause] He's an angry elf.


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