The Films of Jon Favreau
Elf (November 4/03)
Elf casts Will Ferrell as Buddy, a human who's been raised as one of Santa's elves and actually believes himself to be an elf. After inevitably learning the obvious truth, Buddy embarks on a journey to meet his biological father (played by James Caan) in New York City - where fish-out-of-water wackiness ensues. Without question, Elf's success is due primarily to Ferrell's irresistibly open-hearted performance. The actor's always been a scene-stealer in movies like Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Old School (not to mention his hilarious work on Saturday Night Live), but with Elf, Ferrell proves that he's got the charisma and presence to carry a movie on his shoulders and even manages to hold his own opposite experienced folks like Caan and Bob Newhart. As a director, Favreau has improved immeasurably over his debut outing, Made, with the filmmaker's reliance on jerky camerawork there more of an annoyance than anything else. Elf, on the other hand, has that fairy tale feeling that one expects from a movie of this ilk (although there's little doubt that the filmmaker's penchant for allowing the story to unfold deliberately is exacerbated by the presence of a few needless sequences). Though Ferrell's performance probably would have been enough to keep things enjoyable, Favreau has peppered the cast with talented supporting players. Caan, in a rare comedic role, is very good as the Scrooge-like character whose heart is melted by Buddy. And Zooey Deschanel, playing Buddy's love interest, does a nice job of playing a woman who has to go through an arc that essentially mirrors Caan's (and her character's eventual relationship with Buddy is genuinely touching). And then there's Peter Dinklage, who effortlessly steals all of his scenes as a temperamental children's writer. As expected, Elf's conclusion is heartwarming and sappy (but not overwhelmingly so), with all the characters learning the true meaning of Christmas. It's just about the perfect way to end the story, and pretty much cements Elf's place as a seasonal classic.
Zathura (November 11/05)
If Zathura's premise sounds an awful lot like that of Jumanji's, that's because both films are based on books by the same author (Chris Van Allsburg, whose original novel is a direct sequel to Jumanji). The story revolves around a pair of bickering brothers (played by Jonah Bobo and Josh Hutcherson) who - after uncovering a space-themed board game called Zathura - find themselves literally thrust into orbit and forced to contend with various sinister forces (including a race of man-eating aliens known as Zorgons). Despite an overwhelmingly action-packed third act, Zathura is generally a fast-paced and energetic family film that's sure to appeal to both children and adults. Director Jon Favreau imbues the movie with a light and playful vibe, while stars Bobo and Hutcherson are effective as the squabbling siblings. And though Zathura isn't quite as thoroughly engaging as Jumanji, the movie's rarely dull and there are enough individual moments here to warrant a recommendation (a chase sequence involving a small boy and a huge robot is certainly a highlight).
Saddled with an absurdly overlong running time, Iron Man suffers from an uneven and increasingly oppressive structure that ultimately negates the film's few positive attributes (ie star Robert Downey Jr's expectedly fantastic performance). Director Jon Favreau - working from Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway's screenplay - has infused the proceedings with a refreshingly down-to-earth sensibility that admittedly suits the material quite well, yet there's little doubt that the continued emphasis on superfluous sequences ensures that the whole thing hardly moves at the brisk pace one justifiably might've anticipated. And while the movie - which follows billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Downey Jr) as he drops his narcissistic persona to become crime-fighting superhero Iron Man after a near-death experience at the hands of terrorists - is undoubtedly a cut above such egregiously underwhelming summer fare as Transformers and Live Free or Die Hard, it does become increasingly difficult to recall a more disappointing big-budget extravaganza given the effectiveness of the cast and premise. That the film primarily possesses the feel of a first cut surely stands out as its most glaring deficiency, as Favreau includes an almost unconscionable number of sequences in which Downey Jr works on (and tweaks) the his character's super-powered suit. There's only so much one can take before such moments start to become repetitive and (eventually) interminable, and it does seem clear that the movie would've benefited from some seriously judicious bouts of editing (ie the entire opening hour could've easily been compressed into a blisteringly-paced fifteen minutes). There are highlights, of course - including the uniformly strong performances and a marvelous sequence detailing Iron Man's initial foray as a global crime-stopper - but it's inevitably impossible to view Iron Man as anything more than a missed opportunity (and that final battle is as overblown and tedious as one might've feared).
Iron Man 2
A mild improvement over its lackluster predecessor, Iron Man 2 follows billionaire-playboy-turned-superhero Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) as he attempts to battle both a terrifying new adversary (Mickey Rourke's Whiplash) and a life-threatening defect in his artificial heart. Filmmaker Jon Favreau - working from Justin Theroux's screenplay - offers up a tremendously entertaining opening half hour that boasts a number of enthralling interludes, with Stark's hearing before an irate Senate committee and Iron Man's first encounter with Whiplash certainly standing out as highlights (and indeed, such moments are more engaging than anything contained within the original film). It's only as Theroux places an increasingly prominent emphasis on Stark's health issues that one's interest begins to dwindle, with the character's self-destructive streak - ie he picks a fight with his old friend James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) - ultimately serving no real purpose other than to pad out the running time (there's no law that says these movies have to be over two hours). The ensuing lack of momentum ensures that the film's midsection is often dull and surprisingly tedious, and it's not until the narrative charges into its action-packed third act that the viewer's waning interest is (mildly) resuscitated. Having said that, Iron Man 2's relentlessly uneven sensibilities can't quite diminish the strength of its positive attributes - with the movie's most hypnotic aspect undoubtedly Sam Rockwell's scene-stealing turn as Stark's goofy, megalomaniacal competitor Justin Hammer. The final result is an passable sequel that breathes new life into this less-than-impressive franchise, with the unexpectedly involving and exciting nature of the film's final few action sequences ensuring that the whole thing closes on an appreciatively positive note.
Cowboys & Aliens (July 28/11)
Based on a comic book, Cowboys & Aliens details the chaos that ensues after otherworldly creatures launch a vicious attack against the residents of an Old West community - with the film subsequently following several characters as they embark on a journey to find (and destroy) the aliens' subterranean base. There's little doubt that Cowboys & Aliens fares best in its opening half hour, as filmmaker Jon Favreau has assembled an impressively off-kilter cast and thrown them into what is essentially a prototypical Western. The affably familiar atmosphere, which is certainly perpetuated by the inclusion of genre staples like the saloon shootout and the mysterious gunfighter who rolls into town, persists right up until the bloodthirsty aliens arrive on the scene, after which point the survivors, including Daniel Craig's Jake, Harrison Ford's Woodrow, and Olivia Wilde's Ella, head out on their aforementioned expedition into the desert - with the decidedly unfocused nature of this stretch effectively wreaking havoc on the film's momentum. The pervasively erratic atmosphere ensures that Cowboys & Aliens' midsection ultimately feels padded out to an almost unreasonable degree, as Favreau and his five screenwriters emphasize the less-than-engrossing episodic exploits of the film's somewhat underdeveloped characters (eg the group encounters an upside-down steamboat, Jake meets up with his former gang, etc, etc). The likeable performances are, as a result, rendered moot in the build-up to the movie's larger-than-life climax (which, as it involves a lot of running and shooting and blowing things up, seems to have been designed to appeal solely to teenage boys), with the progressively dumbed-down atmosphere finally cementing Cowboys & Aliens' place as a distressingly underwhelming summer blockbuster.