`SNL's' Will Ferrell comes with cheer, the innocent kind

New set of fans is coming his way

Movies: on screen, DVD/ Video

November 06, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Will Ferrell has a plan.

The groundwork already has been laid. Seven seasons on Saturday Night Live got him one heckuva fan base, especially among the breed of young adults who flocked to this summer's Old School, a frat-house comedy wherein Ferrell did what he could to revive the streaking fad.

OK, the 18-40 crowd is safely under his spell. Now, with Elf, he's coming for their children.

The holiday comedy, which opens nationwide tomorrow, stars the 6-foot-3 Ferrell as a human who grows up among the elves at Santa's North Pole workshop without ever realizing how different he is. With its big heart, family-friendly veneer and complete lack of cynicism or guile, it's not exactly what one would expect from an SNL veteran. And that, he explains, is part of the idea.

"We felt that, if we could pull it off in the right way, it would still be a comedy, but it would be a different kind of film for me to do," Ferrell, 36, says over the phone, "something that families would see, and expose me to maybe a whole other audience that was unable to see other films that I've done in the past."

So, is this one more step in some master plan for total Ferrell domination of Hollywood?

"Well, you try to plan," the actor says with a laugh. "But then you want to approach things with a degree of flexibility as well. And on top of all that, you're happy that you're just continuing to work."

For now, the emphasis is on Elf, a project that seems especially suited to Ferrell's talents. On SNL, he was known for playing characters operating just a beat behind the rest of the world, and that personality certainly fits Buddy, who as the film opens has lived his life blissfully unaware of anything beyond Santa's workshop. He's a font of uncomplicated holiday cheer, convinced that everything is a potential toy and everyone is his best friend. When it's revealed that his birth father is alive and living in New York City, Buddy makes for the Big Apple. Not surprisingly, in this place where unchecked innocence is a rarity indeed, his visit there makes a lasting impression on everyone.

"I thought this would be an easy part for me to play," he says, "someone who is eternally gleeful, always is very earnest and sees the world without any preconceived notion of how it's supposed to be or how you're supposed to act or what you're supposed to say or not say. ... I thought that would be a very fun thing and a thing that would seek my strengths, in terms of playing it."

Thus, in Elf, we have Will Ferrell spinning around in a revolving door, ingesting ABC (Already Been Chewed) gum scraped off railings, riding on the backs of firetrucks, greeting people by asking their favorite color, leaping atop Christmas trees. And all the while dressed in a brightly colored elf outfit. At least that's better than having to run around buck naked, right?

"Yeah, that was a relief," he jokes, "even though, with skintight yellow tights, what's the difference?"

But whatever it is Ferrell's doing, it seems to be working. For the foreseeable future, the man's pretty much everywhere.

Old School, in which a group of former frat boys relive their glory days, has enriched DreamWorks' coffers to the tune of nearly $75 million - not bad for a $24 million investment. Elf, even though it's being released well in advance of the season it celebrates, is generating all sorts of positive buzz.

And Ferrell, by his own count, has roles in another five projects in various stages of production, including Woody Allen's next film; a comedy directed by Adam Sandler, Anchor Man: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (which Ferrell promises will do for local news anchors what the Austin Powers franchise has done for spies); Winter's Passing, a drama starring Ed Harris; an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces; and an as-yet-untitled soccer movie co-starring Robert Duvall that Ferrell describes as The Bad News Bears meets The Great Santini. He doesn't even bring up The Wendell Baker Story, with Luke Wilson as an ex-con working in a retirement home; the big-screen version of Bewitched; or the animated Curious George, in which he's slated to provide the voice of the man in the yellow hat.

There seems to be not a single cinematic plate on which Ferrell hasn't got something cooking, making him one of Hollywood's busiest actors, and perhaps one of its most grateful.

"My wife and I constantly laugh about what's going on," he says. "I kind of compare it to this black-tie private party I've snuck into, with a Hawaiian shirt on no one's noticed. I'm just trying to hide over by the bar until someone kicks me out."

For more film events, see page 43.

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