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Appreciation: ‘Elf’ showcased the soul of James Caan

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You’re going to be reading a lot about Sonny Corleone over the next few days.

It’s natural. James Caan, the tough leading man who portrayed the explosively violent and oldest of Vito Corleone son in “The Godfather”, died July 6 at age 82. Among his many enduring roles – which include Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo in 1971’s “Brian’s Song”, the debt-ridden English teacher in the original 1974 version of “The Gambler” and the heroic sergeant of Staff Dohun in the 1977 World War II epic “A Bridge Too Far” – Sonny is the one average moviegoers will likely remember 50 years from now.

Talking about Sonny makes sense, but maybe it’s not what he wanted. As he told the Washington Post about 42 years ago, “Everywhere I go, I spend half my time undoing Sonny Corleone.”

So let’s talk about something else. Let’s talk about Walter Hobbs.

Caan’s character in the 2003 family comedy “Elf” might not be the first thing that came to mind for most film critics when his death was announced, but it certainly is. which worries me. I’m not the least bit bothered by that, and you shouldn’t be if you’re on the same side. It’s easily one of his best performances in a career where everyone seemed to beat the last.

Obituary: James Caan, who played Sonny Corleone in ‘The Godfather’, dies aged 82

Am I biased? Sure. Anyone with a positive relationship to “Elf” – that is, most people who have seen it – would be too. My mom, Mindy, loves “Elf” more than any other movie (including “The Godfather”) and therefore kicks it off at least once every December (and usually again in July) to watch with my brother Tyler and me .

I am far from alone in this experience.

On the first watch, you notice Will Ferrell’s Buddy the Elf. How could you not, with over six feet of maniacal, hyperactive flesh snug in his elf outfit, the definition of exuberance, high sugar fueled by maple syrup-coated candy?

As with all successful family films, the film manages to delight parents and children alike, in part by introducing the younger generation to an army of former Hollywood statesmen. “Bob Newhart is playing Papa Elf,” your mom might exclaim. “And Santa Claus is Ed Asner?! You know, from my favorite old sitcoms like “Lou Grant” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” ”

And there’s Caan — there’s Sonny Corleone, Paul Sheldon, Tony Archer, Brian Piccolo, the “Thief” guy — as the gruff, absent-minded dad who needs to learn the meaning of Christmas. That’s who you notice on the second watch. And the third. And so on until you can’t remember how many times you watched it.

“Elf” is like “The Godfather”, really: it doesn’t work without James Caan. He may not play the main character in either, but he is one of the most important in both. And, in some ways, “Elf” highlights a certain natural progression in his career. He went much further in defeating Sonny Corleone than, say, “Misery.”

Caan might have seemed an unusual choice for a broad holiday comedy, the seriousness of his career and the sternness of his characters almost off-putting. It’s especially striking given how picky he could be – he turned down lead roles in ‘Encounters of the Third Kind’, ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Superman’ (because he didn’t want to wearing a cape), among others.

In “Elf”, he was able to channel a workaholic publishing manager who refuses to reprint a children’s book missing a few pages in the name of the almighty dollar, and who is annoyed – if not terrified – to learn that he might unknowingly have a son from a previous relationship. Caan took inspiration from the stiff, hardened, and sometimes explosive badass he had become known for, toning it down to fit a vacation. film. He’s prickly, but not completely dumb, tough but vulnerable. Just cruel enough to land on the naughty list, but just empathetic enough to get away with it – after a little help from the family he loves, often in spite of himself.

Pitching actor capitol-S Serious against Ferrell’s maniacal creation was part of director Jon Favreau’s plan, even if it created a nervous crew. “We were all a little scared of James Caan,” producer Jon Berg said in the Netflix documentary series “The Movies That Made Us.”

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This fear did not last. Leave it to Ferrell. “The first time I met him, I just hugged him and shouted ‘Dad!’ I thought it would break the ice,” he told entertainment website Blackfilm in 2003.

Knowing that the key was having Walter de Caan versus Ferrell’s Buddy, the former ‘Saturday Night Live’ actor and improv comedian decided to agitate the Oscar-winning actor until he moved on. annoyance to bewilderment.

“I was very lucky that my job in the film was to try to drive him crazy, and I would. I would try to make up for anything he could throw at me,” Ferrell told Blackfilm. I knew it drove him crazy on some level It’s great to see Jimmy in a way we’re not used to seeing him in and it adds to the effect His specific casting in this role obviously adds to why it works so well.

Caan has “a great sense of humor. So if you could make him laugh, all the tension goes away. We made him laugh and he made us laugh,” Favreau told Rolling Stone. “It took him a while to get familiar with the programming. I surrounded him with a lot of improvisers, like Andy Richter, Kyle Gass and Amy Sedaris. When I work with improv people, I give them the go-ahead to just bring things in and try things out. So every take was different. Eventually something clicked on Jimmy and he went with it. He was great fun. We ended up hanging out off set a lot. Every time we went to an Italian restaurant, they put on the soundtrack of “The Godfather”. Wherever he goes, “The Godfather” theme.

No, “Elf” probably won’t be added to the Criterion Collection anytime soon. He did not sweep Cannes; we will not make heavy documentaries on this subject. The headlines you’ll read this week will likely focus on “The Godfather.” But every December — and maybe even July — we’ll focus on “Elf,” waiting for the moment when Walter de Caan puts on that Santa Claus coat and reluctantly belts out “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.”