November 10, 2003
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Remember when Swingers came out and everyone was saying "Vegas, baby" and "You're so money"? It was like screenwriter and star, Jon Favreau and a bunch of his half-cool/half-dorky friends managed to revise the lingua franca through the sheer force of their giddy group love and determination. Swingers was also pretty funny: great riffs on the awkwardness of dating, answering machine etiquette, and the anxious "when will life begin" feeling of being in your mid-twenties. The film also contained some uncomfortably accurate insights into how envy, competition, and loathing factor into even the closest of friendships.

Fans of le savvy Favs were probably pretty surprised to hear that he'd chosen to direct Elf, a saccharine-sweet big budget holiday family film about a human raised by Elves who leaves the North Pole in search of his real father and the true meaning of Christmas. (If that description sounds like a joke, $32 million worth of ticket-buyers all laughed at it this weekend.) But watching both films, it's clear that Swingers and Elf aren't so different: you might even argue, they're the exact same movie.
Both tell the tale of an innocent man-boy lost amidst cynical, hardened people. They both search for father figures, someone who will explain this weird, complicated world to them. They each wander (or drive) around a strange new city and observe its customs and mores with curiosity and a little fear. In the end, they both pursue—and win over—beautiful blonds who fall in love with their inner sweetness. These lost little boys wind up as heros and even teach a thing or two to their tough-as-nails mentors and everyone learns a lesson, whether it's that you don't have to wait the "industry standard" two days to call a girl back, or the true meaning of Christmas.

Looking at Elf this way, it becomes clear that Favreau, despite glaring weaknesses such as his almost religious devotion to Syd Field-type screenplay rules, is a true auteur: he's also a very autobiographical filmmaker. Swingers (directed by Doug Liman), as everyone knows, tells the story of being an ambitious out-of-work actor, unlucky in love and life in Los Angeles. Made tells the story of two friends who've come up together but whose bond begins to fray when one of them (the grating Vince Vaughn) over-reaches in the ambition department and gets them in trouble with some rich, shady people. (Sounds a lot like Hollywood, right?) Elf fits comfortably in there because it's the classic family movie made by a new father. (Since Favreau appears to only be able to make films about the exact place he's at in life, let's hope he and his wife never divorce so we're spared his version of the Paul Masursky/Blake Edwards mid-life crisis comedy.)

Another reason for making Elf may have been the chance to cast people like James Caan and Faizon Love and enable Favreau to further cement his self-appointed role as the ambassador of old and young Hollywood. Week after week on his IFC show Dinner for Five, he plays out the fantasy that he sits (literally and metaphorically) at the head of a raucous inter-generational dinner party wherein he is both a veteran and and a wide-eyed student. (On a related note, Dinner is co-produced by Peter Billingsley, "Ralphie" from the great A Christmas Story, a holiday film that's still funny. And, no: he did not shoot his eye out.) But in the end, the main reason Jon Favreau made Elf goes all the way back to the beginning of his career in the public eye, and it's the most obvious reason of all: he knew it would be, like, money.

Posted in a Shallow fashion.

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