Movies: Big Time

Will Ferrell takes spastic exuberance to the movies

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Anyone famous here?" yells Melrose Larry Green, as he walks toward our sidewalk table at Los Angeles' Urth Caffe. Will Ferrell prepares for the inevitable embarrassing encounter with the professional annoyer and Howard Stern regular. But Green, who talks to almost everyone else at the restaurant, passes Ferrell right by. After Green finally leaves, Ferrell pretends to call his publicist to scream at him, "What are you doing wrong? Did I wave at him? No. But I shouldn't have to."

Ferrell, despite being very tall and having red hair, doesn't stick out. He looks backgroundy, and his shockingly mellow demeanor makes him extra-unnoticeable. But when Ferrell is on, he's a gale force of guileless enthusiasm. He's John Belushi with control, Pee-wee Herman without the creepiness, Mr. Bean with mastery of his motor skills. He's the comedian you want to simultaneously laugh at, hug and down a beer with. Now, after seven years of yelling, saucering his eyes and flailing his hands on Saturday Night Live, Ferrell, 36, is getting a shot at becoming a movie star. And unlike many SNL alums, he has a pretty clear crack at it.

In Elf, which opens this week, Ferrell gets to run around in the same kind of custom-built playground Jack Black enjoys in School of Rock. He stars as a clueless human raised at the North Pole who is horrified to find out he's not an elf. He goes to Manhattan ostensibly to meet his biological father but really to fulfill the point of the movie: getting himself overly excited about everything else he finds there. He tries to impress a date by taking her to a diner that advertises the WORLD'S BEST CUP OF COFFEE, waves back at people hailing taxis and receives each advertising flyer as if it were a gift. And, since it's a Christmas movie, he brings his dad's broken family together and falls in love with a department-store elf (Zooey Deschanel). His spastic exuberance is partly counterbalanced by the tenderness given to the film by director Jon Favreau, working from a script by first-timer David Berenbaum. "His humor has a real vulnerability to it," says Favreau, who first met Ferrell on the set of Old School, which went on to become a $75 million box-office hit earlier this year. "He was really sweet and nice and quiet. It was hard to evaluate his energy on that set, though, because he was always naked."

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