Jewish Christmas Movies: Elf (2003)

There's a trick you can play with almost any Christmas movies, where you dig into it and you find Jews. Take "It's a Wonderful Life," which was mostly written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who weren't Jewish (but did author the stage and screen version of "The Diary of Anne Frank.") But the film underwent extensive rewrites, and those uncredited writers included Jo Swerling and Dorothy Parker, who were Jewish. Additionally, the film's score was by Jewish composer Dimitri Tiomkin.

Now, "It's a Wonderful Life" is not an especially Jewish film, and points to the problem with simply identifying Jews who participated in the filmmaking. I'd like to believe anything a Jew worked on becomes somehow Jewish as a result, that the rich vein of pathos that runs through "It's a Wonderful Life" is the product of a Jewish sensibility, but I can't.

So when I list Jewish involvement in the 2003 comedy "Elf," I do so knowing it proves nothing. But I want to start with a list, just to make it clear that "Elf" wasn't a film that merely had Jews involved in its making. It was a film made by Jews.

Firstly, the script, about a boy raised in the North Pole who returns to New York to find his biological family, is by David Berenbaum, a Jewish writer from Philadelphia. The film was directed by Jon Favreau, who is the product of a mixed marriage and was raised Jewish. The film features Jewish actors James Caan and Daniel Tay as father and brother of the film's title character. (I presume Tay is Jewish -- some web sleuthing suggests he grew up to attend Yale, was vice president of the Alpha Epsilon Pi Jewish fraternity, and studied Jewish/Judaic Studies at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, which seems pretty Jewish.) Beyond that, the film is populated with Jewish actors, including Ed Asner as Santa Claus, Michael Lerner as a book publisher, and Favreau himself as a pediatrician.

On the surface, this is a film that lovingly borrows from previous Christmas movies, with explicit references to Rankin-Bass cartoons, "Miracle on 34th Street," and "A Christmas Story." (It includes a cameo from Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie in "Christmas Story.") It's a reach to find explicit Jewish content, but for a lone menorah tucked into the back of the pediatrician's office.

Still, it's hard not to get the sense that some autobiographical material slipped in. Favreau often discusses being the product of intermarriage in interviews, and he did extensive rewrites on the script for "Elf."

There are a bunch of intangible elements, but collectively they contribute to a feeling, at least for me, that the family at the center of this movie is intermarried. Obviously, there is Caan and Tay as father and son. Cann is playing against his usual gruffness in the film, replacing the hotheadeness of the characters he played in his youth with a furrowed, bewildered discomfort. He's never seemed more Jewish in a film.

Caan never seems especially invested in Christmas, and almost literally crawls with mortification when Will Ferrell's Buddy shows up. It's a recurring joke in the film that Buddy's love for Christmas is a little too much for anyone to take, but Caan has the weariness of someone who compromised on a little Christmas, but wasn't prepared to go all in on the holiday. He barely complains when his boss forces him to work on Christmas Eve, and the film never bothers to include a scene in which he much explain the fact to his family. It's just a family where the father might be absent on Christmas and nobody makes much of a fuss about it.

Compare this to a similar scene in the Will Ferrell comedy "Step Brothers," in which Will Ferrell's stepfather, played by Richard Jenkins, gets up and leaves a Christmas party. His absence is treated as the climactic moment of a familial breakdown, and his marriage almost immediately unravels. For most people, Christmas is important, and missing Christmas in meaningful.

Tay goes to confront his Caan on Christmas Eve, but it isn't because he is at work on Christmas, rather because Buddy the Elf has run off, and he doesn't grow upset with Caan until it seems like the older actor might not even leave his business meeting for that.

This feels strange. It's a scene created by people who don't invest the sort of weight into Christmas that most Americans, and most American Christmas movies, do. This is likely because it was made by Jews, and the lack of weight they give to Caan skipping Christmas might be an unconscious product of that. But it accidentally ends up making it feel like Caan and his son are Jews, and Christmas is mostly of an enjoyable curiosity for them.

Even when they meet Santa, they seem happily bemused rather than thrilled. Tasked with helping him, Caan seems unimpressed, and must be cajoled into singing Christmas carols despite the fact that this is the very thing that will help Father Christmas.

I know I am reading into the film, finding meaning as much in stuff that was left out as in stuff that was put in. But coming from a Jewish family, growing up with friends who were the product of intermarriage, knowing old Jewish men like Caan (including Caan, who I have met on a number of occasions), and being a Jew who participates in Christmas each year due to my long relationship with a non-Jewish woman, I can't help but recognize something in Caan's performance.

I can't help but see a Jewish man who gamely is going along with a holiday that is not his, but doesn't have the depth of familial and cultural experiences to make it as meaningful for him as it is for the people he loves. I don't know how much of this performance was the result of Caan or was influenced by the writing or direction, but it sharpens the story a little.

Because if Buddy's fanaticism about Christmas is a little hard for everybody to take, how much harder for a Jewish biological father? It's tough. You can see it in Caan's eyes. A little Christmas, okay. But this?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Max. I just watched "Elf" again for the first time since seeing it in theaters and decided to poke around to learn more about its origins. I came across this fun post and thought you might enjoy a little holiday verse I wrote a few years back. Some descriptions are hyper specific to NYC (the playground really does have a spiral slide and the NYC Matzo Ball is held at The Capitol downtown, which indeed has columns and steps. Some rhythms need ironing. Anyway, it's here: