[Our Sunday Visitor, December 14, 2003]
Step up and shake hands with the movie that is going to be playing in the next room every Christmas for the rest of your life. "Elf" appears to have been planned with that small-screen destiny in mind: uncomplicated camerawork usually features one big image in the middle of the screen, an image you can identify without squinting even as far away as the refrigerator.
"Elf" has been diligently worked over to ensure that every band in the age demographic spectrum has been hit. For the little ones there are toys with big, familiar brand names, so they’ll know what to look for at the mall. There are burp and potty jokes for school kids, and a four-letter-word that now, I suppose, is considered mild. For young teens there’s a sleigh-chase sequence that sends an aerodynamically unworthy structure hurtling through Gotham’s canyons, for a much longer time than grownups will find interesting. For Mom, there’s the heartwarming tale of a dad who puts his family first and keeps his career priorities straight. Gotcha! No, the rule is: any movie with a dad is a movie with a bad dad ("He’s on the naughty list," Santa intones), and this one will give Mom plenty to feel self-righteous about while she does the Christmas dishes. There’s something for Dad, too: slippery, luscious Zooey Deschanel in the shower.
For as much cynicism as went into assembling this movie, little of it comes across on-screen, for which we can be grateful. The film is consistently sincere rather than ironic, cheerful rather than snarky. Will Ferrell, as the title elf, embodies this spirit well, with an open, puzzled, appealing face that can be read a mile away, and even as far as the dining room. Casting is the real treat here, with James Caan doing an excellent turn as Ferrell’s long-lost dad, Ed Asner as a gruff Santa, and Bob Newhart as a stammering, fretful Papa Elf. Leon Redbone’s cameo as Leon the Snowman is forgettable, but his duet with Deschanel over the closing credits ("Baby, It’s Cold Outside") is the most charming element of the film.
The most troubling element is the plot proposition that Santa’s sleigh can’t fly because people don’t believe he exists. It’s this that the audience is exhorted to have "faith" in; it’s this that sums up the "Christmas spirit." There is no hint of the Nativity of Christ in this film, and not even an emphasis on giving to others. The tight focus is on the assertion that Santa knows what material object you have wished for, and that he will bring it to you. Believing that equals having the Christmas spirit. Is this really what you want your children to place their faith in?
Tellingly, "Elf" ends with a tip of the hat to marketing: Caan’s job worries are solved when he founds a children’s book company and publishes the very same tale you have just seen on screen. Children buy the book and all is well! Buying stuff, it turns out, makes the world go round-and "Elf" will be popping cutely into your den to tell you, year after year till you die, that’s what Christmas spirit is all about.
Now that we have come to the end of this immense trilogy, a series that attempted to encompass profound questions about the nature of reality, creation, and sacrifice, that presented some of the most spectacular visual effects ever seen, I find myself in one accord with the sentiment spoken in awe-filled tones during the concluding moments of the film: "It doesn’t make any sense."
True, it never did make complete sense. But the first film ("The Matrix", 1999) was so beguiling because it hinted that it would make sense eventually: it presented a complex alternate world, packed with mystery and worth exploring. After several years’ gap, the second film ("Matrix Reloaded," May 2003) fumbled to keep things going. Rather than teasing out further mystery, it popped a few duds-most memorably, that ghosts and zombies are glitches in the human-reality computer program. Now, that’s just clunky.
The second film alternated patches of wordiness with patches of astonishing action (during the long concluding speech with the whiskered, supercilious "Architect," my son heard a viewer behind him complain, "Colonel Sanders talks too much.") This third film throws philosophy overboard and opts for near-continual fighting. There are a few affecting scenes, such as the moment when a sixteen-year-old soldier is thrust into chaotic conflict, but such scenes are not very original; they were staples of the World War II heroism films.
Those great black-and-white war films of the forties and fifties had better characters and dialogue than "Matrix Revolutions"-indeed, the script is so lame that most reviews have featured a sampling of the critic’s favorite bad writing, and I’ll nominate tough-guy patter like: "Save the dock, Captain? You just handed it to them on a silver platter." Or this: "The big bupkis. Nada. He’s not in there." Or: "It ain’t pretty, but the way I see it, it’s the only way back."
Everybody in the film is a tough guy, even the women. Women are so lean and masculine that you can almost see the backlash on the horizon, and a wise speculator would be investing now in hourglass corsets. The most feminine character, the Oracle, bakes cookies, and advises that chocolate chips should be massaged in by hand because "Cookies need love like everything else." As queasy as this line sounds, it is delivered in a no-nonsense baritone by a lady who wears no makeup and chain-smokes. That’s as girly as it gets: there is no role here for Marilyn Monroe.
All "Matrix Revolutions" has going for it is immense special effects, and that’s only going to be enough for a dwindling audience. It’s a shame. The first "Matrix" film promised so much; the last is merely "sound and fury, signifying nothing."