Director gets early Christmas present

'Elf,' a No. 1 hit movie, is directed by an 'underdog' actor.

Jon Favreau finally has some idea how "money" he really is. The actor, best known for the catchphrase "it's so money" in the comedy "Swingers," has a No. 1 box-office hit. His second directing effort, "Elf" grossed $27.2 million last weekend - besting Russell Crowe's "Master and Commander" to become the No. 1 film in the country. "Elf" has pulled in more than $44 million during its two weeks in theaters and could top $100 million given its holiday theme, family appeal, and strong word of mouth.

Critics too have praised the film for its unabashed celebration of holiday cheer, free of the mean-spiritedness and sour irony that often sullies today's Christmas comedies. "Jon wanted to make a film that would play to families and resonate with kids and adults like 'Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer' and all those timeless claymation TV specials," says "Elf" producer Todd Komarnicki. "Its surprising success proves that people are still hungry for that type of entertainment - something that touches your heart and makes your stomach hurt from laughing."

As with Frank Capra's classics, however, the lighter moments are imbued with darker themes of longing and abandonment, feelings often amplified by the holiday season. "The movies that are most interesting to me are ones that deal with loneliness and overcoming loneliness to become part of a community, a friendship or romance," says Favreau, who identified with his central character's outsider status. "Movies are most powerful when people are alone in the world and then they come together. 'Swingers' had that at its core, certainly, and if you look at Christmas movies traditionally, they deal with that theme, whether it's 'A Christmas Carol' or 'It's A Wonderful Life.' "

Now, the actor best known for making a succession of disastrous phone calls to a woman he has just met in 1995's "Swingers" has turned himself into an unlikely Hollywood bigshot by creating a comic Christmas present about a human (Will Ferrell) raised at the North Pole to be one of Santa's helpers.

"The success of 'Elf' reinforces what some of us learned after 'Swingers," that Jon is going to be a major force in mainstream American comedy," says Cary Woods, who produced "Rudy," the 1993 film that was Favreau's debut. "Jon said early on that he was going to write and direct movies - on set he was always talking to producers and directors about all aspects of the production," remembers Mr. Woods, later the executive producer of "Swingers." "It wasn't bragging and it wasn't arrogance; it was quiet confidence, and none of us doubted that it would happen."

While that kind of early certainty might seem unusual in someone who didn't even have an agent, let alone a trailer, Favreau had nowhere to go but up. "Before I was cast in 'Rudy,' I was doing improv for free in the back rooms of bars in Chicago so I had already taken a big step - and I was living off the high of making a living as an actor and paying off my credit-card bills."

And though he may soon be known more as a director than the star of a dozen indies or the IFC talk show "Dinner For Five," Favreau isn't worried about losing sight of his low-budget roots. Many in the cast of "Elf" were darlings of the Sundance circuit, including Zooey Deschanel and Peter Dinklage, who won rave reviews in this year's "The Station Agent."

After making a career playing frustrated underdogs and nice guys who would probably finish last in real life, Favreau is looking forward to other projects that will allow him to combine laughter and heartfelt emotion. "I was an only child, so I was always sort of a loner ... so I've always related most to characters who feel alone," he says. "I think a lot of people share that, and movies are a way to feel a sense of community - not just in what's portrayed but even in the act of sharing that experience with other people in a theater. It's nice to come together to enjoy something with a group."

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