Free Will 

Another SNL vet may be the next Bill Murray. Seriously.

Even when people were watching Will Ferrell on television every Saturday night, they weren't seeing Will Ferrell. They saw no more than a glimpse of him, beneath wigs and behind glued-on beards and buried under characters who became almost better known than he during his seven years on Saturday Night Live. There were, among so many, cheerleader Craig, the Spartan with too much pep; Marty Culp, the piano-playing half of the overwrought husband-wife performing duo; Janet Reno, hosting her regular dance party; Roger, the hirsute professor with a luv-uh named Virginia; James Lipton, who buries himself hip-deep in movie-star ass; and George W. Bush, a president whose foreign policy consists of repeating, "Don't mess with Texas."

Then there were the movies, in which he was asked to do the wacky and the oddball, paid to play garish and surreal--Mustafa in the Austin Powers series, Mugatu in Zoolander, Sky Corrigan in Superstar and Lance DeLune in The Ladies Man, the latter two based on SNL shorts stretched till they snapped. For a while, it appeared as though he was becoming another Phil Hartman, a sketch actor who disappears within a character and comes out the other side a blank--all mannerisms, with no sense of the man within. The same thing used to happen to Peter Sellers, a sieve in need of constant replenishing by writers and directors. Some actors are just like that, which is why they go into the make-believe business. They're the flesh-and-blood equivalents of Mad-Libs, nothing without someone else filling in the spaces between.

Then came Old School, released this year during the February wasteland in which studios bury product they never expect to hear from again. It was the story of three men in their 30s, played by 36-year-old Ferrell, 33-year-old Luke Wilson and 34-year-old Vince Vaughn, who couldn't bring themselves to leave behind their single, drinky days; they made their own fraternity, abandoned their wives and shirked their responsibilities. The movie, made for $24 million, made three times that during its theatrical run and has become a DVD staple--this generation's Animal House or Caddyshack, something to be memorized like sacred text.

Director Todd Phillips cast Ferrell as newlywed Frank Ricard, the once-and-future "Frank the Tank." At film's beginning, Frank's getting married and settling down ("with one vagina for the rest of your life," chides Vaughn's Beanie). His has become a life of Saturdays spent at Home Depot and Bed, Bath & Beyond if the schedule allows, which is no life at all; Frank is happier taking the restrictor plate off the Red Dragon, guzzling from a beer bong and streaking down Main Street with an invisible posse in tow. He has now become a role model to every man in his 30s who believed life would be an endless series of binges and hangovers, only to discover a desk full of bills and a wife who wants the lawn mowed this weekend.

So it is amazing to discover that there were some higher-ups at DreamWorks SKG, which released the film, who did not want Will Ferrell cast in Old School. They did not think him appropriate for the part of an Everyman fighting the onset of responsibility and age. They saw him in wigs and costume, not in the nude--Will and his willy.

"I heard in hindsight that there were a few people at the studio going, 'Will Ferrell? I don't see it. I don't get it,'" Ferrell says. "My agent won't tell me the names, but later I guess they were like, 'You were right. We were wrong.' And it was all Todd Phillips' doing. He literally said to me, 'This guy's going to do crazy stuff, but he's going to be the closest thing to just you, Will, that we've gotten to see.' And I thought that was a great point. I don't know. I guess those people are getting more and more educated, but for the most part, I still don't know if people really understand what it is, the thing that I can kind of do. And I don't know if I can even articulate it. I don't know. I just kind of go out there."

This week, Ferrell arrives in theaters carrying his first movie--over his shoulder, Santa-style. In Jon Favreau's Elf, he plays Buddy, a human raised in the North Pole who doesn't realize he's a giant among elves; his adopted father, played by Bob Newhart, has to set him straight and explain to him his real father lives in Manhattan and knows nothing of his existence. The film is quintessential holiday fare, as Buddy treks to New York City, gets a job as a department-store elf, falls in love with a pretty co-worker (played by Zooey Deschanel), meets his real dad (James Caan) and pretty much saves Christmas by reminding a cynical town about The True Meaning of Christmas. If Tim Allen's Santa Clause can become a Christmastime standard, there's no reason to doubt Elf will be a constant in the DVD player each December in years to come.

Elf works only because of Ferrell, because his Buddy is endearing without becoming cloying, screwball without turning screw-up. He's a child trapped inside adult-sized green tights and reminiscent most of all of Tom Hanks in Big--the good-natured naïf who doesn't understand grown-up things like cynicism and suspicion. Frankly, it could have come off as a little disturbing--especially when Ferrell sneaks into the department store women's bathroom while Deschanel's singing in the shower, or when he engages Caan in a "tickle fight"--but because Ferrell plays Buddy so wide-eyed and innocent, so absolutely lovable, the movie works.


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