Buddy the Elf’s Secret, Devastating Drug Addiction
Peeling back the complicated layers of a modern Christmas classic
Christmas movies, at their roots, are fables wrapped in tinsel and holly and with human centerpieces instead of with animals (I suppose Rudolph, and his struggle to find acceptance and a sense of belonging and place despite his unusual, shiny, you may even say it glows nose, is the exception to this rule). Christmas movies are made for us to feel. They’re able to teach us some greater truth about ourselves; about the world around us. It’s a Wonderful Life taught us that no man is poor when he has family, that even the smallest gestures have a profound impact on the people and places around us. It’s The Butterfly Effect for the Greatest Generation. A Christmas Carol teaches us that love is the ultimate currency, that a man with a full heart and a clean conscience is the wealthiest of all. The Grinch showed us that Christmas is about togetherness, not presents and bows and thin cut roast beef. Even Bad Santa had a heart, just barely visible under twelve layers of grime and grease.
Elf, released in 2003 to great critical and commercial success, is no exception. On its shiny, manic surface, Elf is about family and how funny Will Ferrell looks in tights and a silly hat. What Elf is really about, of course, is one man’s life threatening, terrifying addiction to Crystal Methamphetamine. Re-watching the movie today, it’s amazing how heavy-handed and obvious the story of Buddy’s debilitating drug addiction really is.
The movie begins with Buddy in the throes of a crystal meth induced paranoid hallucination. In some circles, the types of circles you pray you never find yourself inside, Meth is known by the street name “Ice”. “Ice” is a fun nickname when it’s attached to “T” or “Cube” or even “Vanilla”, but it’s decidedly less fun when used as street slang for Crystal Meth. Buddy’s (we can assume) chronic use of “Ice” has warped his brain in such a way that he believes that he’s permanently surrounded by ice, literally living on the North Pole as an elf. In Buddy’s world, his God is the jolly man in the red suit. He is completely, dangerously obsessed with making “Santa” happy. “Santa”, of course, is the personification of Crystal Meth. Everything Buddy does is at Santa’s command. He, or rather, it, runs Buddy’s life completely. Buddy has totally succumbed to the vision of himself as an elf at the service of his supreme leader, Crystopher Kringle.
Perhaps Buddy has created his elf-self as a defense mechanism, a way to cling to the childlike innocence that Crystal Meth robbed him of. Maybe Buddy just smokes some super powerful Crystal Meth. It’s unclear. What is clear however, is that Buddy’s reality isn’t any kind of reality at all. Even within the borders of the fake world he has created for himself, Buddy also outright hallucinates people and places. Hallucinating inside of a fantasy land that your own brain has created is as terrifying and stressful a sensory ordeal as the Boat Scene in Willy Wonka in The Chocolate Factory. Excessive use of Crystal Meth can cause a user to see things that are clearly not based in the natural world. We are introduced to Buddy’s visions early.
Here he is carrying on a full-on, back and forth conversation with a clearly animated snow man. While much of the movie is based in realty, Buddy occasionally slips into Meth induced hallucinatory state, evidenced by the fact that the things he sometimes interacts with are for real made out of clay. The wheels of the plot are set in motion when, perhaps panicked by his increasingly frequent hallucinations, Buddy is scared enough for the first time to attempt to get help for his problem. He goes off to find his father, the same father who, we can assume, gave Buddy an ultimatum. Get clean or get out. We know Buddy got out. We aren’t sure he can get back.
Per the drug abuse library, which is a very real thing on the internet, and perhaps the only library that your parents don’t want you spending any time in, identifies the main signs and symptoms of Crystal Meth abuse as follows: Increased Physical Activity, Sleeplessness, Violent Outbursts, Euphoria, Unpredictable Behavior, Cotton Mouth, Rotted Teeth, Increased Body Temperature and Swollen Tongue. A breakdown of these symptoms, one by one, and how their connected to Buddy the Elf paints a damning portrait of a man possessed by a toxic, chemical demon.
Increased Physical Activity:
The movie introduces Meth’s hold on Buddy early. In one opening sequence, set as Buddy arrives in New York City, he is shown marching through the city like a deranged winter soldier, occasionally leaping manically between the painted crosswalk markings for no apparent reason than for his own bizarre amusement. Later, in a pivotal snowball fight alongside his brother Michael, Buddy assembles hundreds of snowballs in mere minutes, throwing them with such force and torque that his arm looks completely disconnected with his body. Buddy the Elf’s heart rate rarely gets below 130 bpm the entire movie.
The quote to prove it: “I planned out our whole day. First we’ll make snow angels for two hours, and then we’ll go ice skating, and then we’ll eat a whole roll of Toll House cookie dough as fast as we can.” — Buddy the Elf to his brother Michael
Buddy tries to get himself clean in the early going, heading back to his hometown and getting himself a low-end, entry level job. It’s a valiant plan with extraordinarily poor execution. Despite living the past decade or so of his life in the “ice”, surrounded by elves, under Santa’s power, Buddy takes a job at a Christmas-themed department store. It’s akin to a man addicted to Cocaine and trying to get clean by applying for an internship with Pablo Escobar. While at work, the very first mention of Santa sends Buddy spiraling out of control. Once his manager that Santa is set to arrive, Buddy, unable to sleep, pulls an all-nighter inside the mall, literally rolling around the hallways and vandalizing the store. The very first mention of Santa outside of the Ice and Buddy stays awake for 24 hours.
The quote to prove it: “Great! I got a full 40 minutes!” — Buddy the Elf, answering a question on how he slept and being genuinely excited and thankful about the 40 minutes he got.
There’s a scene early on in Elf in which Buddy is promised “The Real Santa”. What Buddy actually gets, is the bottom of the barrel, stepped on, cut up, garbage “Santa.” Buddy is less than thrilled. He quickly turns aggressively violent, berating and then tackling the man he believes has wronged him. The outburst lands Buddy in jail, an outright dark moment in an otherwise cheery movie.
The quote to prove it: “Who the heck are you? You smell like beef and cheese, you don’t smell like Santa.” — Buddy, realizing he’s been duped, to the Fake Santa
Buddy spends most of the movie’s running time in various states of Euphoria. His emotions rarely vacillate outside of absolutely enthralled and impossibly ecstatic. The film plays Buddy’s meth fueled happiness for laughs, but it’s no accident that the other characters outside of Buddy seem to be laughing at him, not with him. Buddy’s false happiness is one of the saddest themes of the movie.
The quote to prove it: “I love smiling, smiling’s my favorite.” — Buddy, lying to himself. Meth. Crystal Meth is his favorite.
Buddy eats old gum off a subway railing. In the middle of New York City. Even “Santa” told him not to do that. When you are so high on Crystal Meth that you start directly disobey Crystal Meth, you are way too high on Crystal Meth. Buddy’s insatiable appetite for subway railing gum, a treat that he seems to outright enjoy, is one of the most horrifying sequences of drug addiction ever shot inside of a New York City subway. Buddy eating subway railing gum is the most heartbreaking, unsanitary illustration of the incredibly dark depths of drug addiction since Leonardo DiCaprio made that subway bathroom deal with a shady businessman in The Basketball Diaries.
The quote to prove it: “Go with the flow. Get out of the flow.” — Buddy, talking nonsensically and strung out on Meth, to his friend, a recently paroled Mail Room employee.
Director Jon Favreau doesn’t even attempt to mask this particular side effect of Meth use. In his outpatient facility, waiting to speak to the doctor in charge of his rehabilitation, Buddy is shown shoving dozens of cotton balls in his mouth. Buddy’s “cotton mouth” is the most literal part of a movie-length metaphor.
The quote to prove it: “…” — Buddy, his mouth filled with cotton.
It’s extremely clever the way Elf handles the inevitable rotted, yellowed teeth of Meth users. The movie couldn’t afford to simply show Buddy repeatedly using Crystal Meth, as the PG rating is an important Christmas movie staple and the best way to reach a mass audience with a message. The movie’s work-around is to make Buddy obsessed with sugar. Children equate sugar consumption with cavities, and would be less likely to ask prodding questions about the obvious deterioration of Buddy’s gums and teeth. “Santa” says it’s OK to put syrup on your spaghetti, and so Buddy does just that, over and over and over and over again.
The quote to prove it: “We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup.”
Increased Body Temperature and Swollen Tongue:
The side effects of Buddy’s meth addiction are primarily mental, but they manifest themselves physically as well. His teeth rot, his heart races, his blood boils, his organs and muscles swell. Buddy can’t help but be ashamed of his appearance, and he explains himself apologetically to the people he cares about, or at least pretends to care about.
The quote to prove it: “I feel really warm around you and my tongue swells up” — Buddy, painting in broad strokes
Buddy’s addiction is very clear. The resolution of Buddy’s tortured life is less so. The entire movie tracks Buddy’s attempts to get clean and his inevitable, self-destructive relapses. Buddy recognizes his addiction. Buddy uses Meth to give himself the energy to get home. Buddy finds his Dad. Buddy gets a job. Buddy uses meth to entertain his father and to get through the work day. The sun rises. The sun sets. Buddy fights. Buddy wins. Buddy loses.
The movie culminates with Buddy and “Santa” together for one last ride. Flying above his loved ones in his drug sleigh, Buddy struggles to maintain his high. The sleigh rises up, the sleigh crashes down. The cycle of addiction is played out above the New York City skyline. It’s his final battle, played out on the grandest scale. We’re hopeful that Buddy can kick the habit. We’re hopeful that he finally realizes he’s too old to believe in Santa. We aren’t naïve. We know that people trapped in the cycle of addiction rarely win that fight. The movie’s ending is ambiguous. We are saddened, if not surprised, to see Buddy and Santa fly higher and higher and higher away, away from reality, towards the heavens, eventually disappearing completely. The credits roll. The movie is over. Or is it? We’re taken to a joyous scene, in Buddy’s father’s apartment. Buddy, finally out of his elf outfit, exchanges gifts. Carols are caroled, hugs are given, laughs echo across the walls. Maybe Buddy is safe. Maybe it’s real. Maybe it’s a dream. Maybe that’s the whole point.
For more me, on Christmas:
Behind Baby, it’s Cold Outside
Mrs. Claus is Margot Robbie: The Sexist Magazine Profile