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A long-running international pop-tune smackdown in which up to 50 nations face off for grand prix honors, the Eurovision Song Contest involves a selection process in each participating home country before an intensive week of rehearsals, semi-finals and a grand final hosted by the previous year’s winner. Part of its cult-like fascination for TV viewers is the reliable expectation that for every syrupy ballad or blustery power anthem there will be an astonishing display of so-bad-it’s-brilliant musical kitsch packaged in culturally specific insanity, with English-language lyrics that can make your ears bleed.
The sporadically hilarious Will Ferrell Netflix vehicle, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, is the equivalent of sitting through every step of that process just to savor the intermittent sprinkling of campy gold. If ever a comedy cried out for tight 85-minute treatment that keeps the gags pinging fast enough to disguise the thin sketch material at its core, it’s this hit-or-miss two-hour feature. Then again, when the target being spoofed already borders on self-parody, this kind of broad comedy can seem almost redundant, a quality Eurovision shares with Ferrell’s competitive ice-skating farce, Blades of Glory.
Release date: Jun 26, 2020
Don’t get me wrong. The new film, directed with halting rhythm and too little tonal consistency by David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), has some very funny moments. It also boasts a delectable comic creation in Dan Stevens’ supremely confident Russian contestant Alexander Lemtov, who swears he’s not gay despite the quartet of hunky dancers that trail him everywhere: “No gay Russian. No non-binary. He/him pronoun.” His look of George Michael frosted bouffant, fake tan and vintage Versace-style pimp-wear is heaven, and his fabulously awful song, “Lion of Love,” sounds like an undiscovered Boney M. deep cut.
Ferrell, who wrote the script with frequent Saturday Night Live and Funny or Die collaborator Andrew Steele, is a very particular type of comedy actor, especially when he’s in full cowbell mode, as he is here playing Lars Erickssong, a wannabe pop star from an Icelandic fishing village, obsessed with winning the Eurovision Song Contest since he saw ABBA triumph with “Waterloo” in 1974.
A weirdly earnest intensity elevates the absurdist lunacy of Ferrell’s best character-driven work; no exaggeration is off limits for his trademark sweet, silly man-babies, and no physical humor too humiliating. He has zero shame, which can be spectacular. I’m still trying to unsee the image of Lars poured into an all-white onesie with a padded crotch.
But finding the right foil for Ferrell is tricky, particularly if romance is involved. Rachel McAdams is a terrific actress who can be excellent in comedy (All Hail, Regina George!). But she’s an imperfect fit as Sigrit Ericksdottir, the Agnetha to Lars’ Björn, who has loved him since childhood and is “probably not his sister,” they keep stressing in a running joke.
While McAdams has lovely moments and is always a winning screen presence, she’s primarily a naturalistic performer. Her efforts to match Ferrell’s oddball naiveté feel a touch forced. She rocks the maiden-of-the-fjords hairdos and bad knitwear (Anna B. Sheppard’s costumes are a hoot), even communing with elves in a folkloric thread that pushes the comedy further into the nonsensical. But she seldom seems entirely comfortable in the role.
I kept wondering whether someone more in sync with Ferrell’s craziness, like a Rachel Dratch, might have made the movie work better. Or Kristen Wiig or Alex Borstein, who could have riffed on their memorable impersonations of Icelandic pop pixie Bjork.
Lars and Sigrit, who perform as Fire Saga, mostly play covers at a local pub. But the scope of their ambition is revealed — along with the limits of Lars’ songwriting talents — as they stride dramatically across coastal lava fields in their ’80s-style music-video fantasy of “Volcano Man,” arguably the movie’s funniest number. How their inanely catchy entry “Double Trouble” gets from bottom of the heap to national Eurovision submission involves some wacky plotting that eliminates all the competition, including hot favorite Katiana (Demi Lovato).
Once the magnificent natural beauty of Iceland gets swapped out for the postcard prettiness of host city Edinburgh, the patchiness of the script becomes a more glaring problem. The key conflict is not so much whether Fire Saga can make it to the finals but whether lovelorn Sigrit can make seemingly asexual Lars sufficiently aware of her feelings for him to respond in kind. The spark that would make this romantic comedy element work is almost entirely missing, so that whole plotline is flat.
There’s also the issue of Dobkin’s pedestrian handling of some of the big set-pieces. Chief among them is a party at Lemtov’s mansion, where the Russian flirts with Sigrit for reasons known only to himself. The event culminates in a “song-along,” a mega-mashup of “Believe,” “Ray of Light,” “Waterloo” and “I Gotta Feeling,” performed by a lineup featuring many real-life Eurovision stars, including bearded Austrian drag artist Conchita Wurst. This number should be an explosion of borderless musical joy, but like much of the movie, it lacks cohesion. The timing feels off.
The same goes for a race-against-the-clock sequence in which Lars commandeers a car full of hapless young U.S. tourists, which allows for some digs about the cultural insularity of Americans abroad.
Along with the obstacle of Lemtov there’s also sultry Greek contestant Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut), who takes a fancy to Lars. But writers Ferrell and Steele are basically just plotting by numbers en route to Lars’ inevitable maturation into a grownup ready to love and commit to the one person who has always believed in him, and Sigrit releasing her passion by singing from her heart and not her head. This involves hitting something called the “speorg note,” a kind of mythic Icelandic High C. (McAdams’ vocals are a convincing blend of her voice with Swedish singer Molly Sandén, while Ferrell does his own singing.)
Lovato is a great sport, making surprise reappearances after what initially seems like a musical cameo. But the best of the supporting cast is Pierce Brosnan as Lars’ emotionally withholding father, whose slow melt into the pride and approval his son has spent a lifetime craving supplies some charm. He also does easily the best Scandi accent of the non-natives. Others like Jamie Demetriou (so memorably abrasive on Fleabag) are wasted, playing a creative consultant brought in to make Fire Saga more telegenic. And a subplot involving Iceland’s economic woes and some related government treachery is cute but too hastily set up and executed.
Given that the baggy narrative never acquires much urgency as it ambles through its formulaic beats, watching the movie becomes a waiting game between exhilarating musical atrocities. While Lemtov’s strutting bombast is the highlight, the various national entries include some gems, such as the Belarus metalhead number “Running With the Wolves” or a vanilla Swedish hip-hop group called Johnny John John doing “Coolin’ With Da Homies.”
The sense of lyrics that sound like the work of Google Translate is spot-on, full of amusingly clunky sexual winks, like the San Marino entry, “Hit My Itch.” The one song that detours from pastiche into someplace more musically viable is Fire Saga’s late addition, “Húsavík (Homeland),” which fuels the poignant uplift of the final stretch. But any risk of saccharine overload is humorously tempered by the jarring lyrics: “Where the mountains sing / Through the screams of seagulls / Where the whales can live / ‘Cause they’re gentle people.” Huh?
There’s a lot of fun in the wildly outré production values, the overblown sets, elaborate LED graphics, pyrotechnic lighting and tasteless choreography of the performances, as seen in “(Come and Play) Masquerade,” in which Mita emerges as a sexy astronaut. (Who doesn’t love a song title with a parenthetical?) Ferrell of course is in his delirious element with this over-the-top stuff, nowhere more so than when he takes the stage in a silver pit suit, singing while jogging in a giant hamster wheel.
Devoted Eurovision fans will smile at the appearance of regular U.K. commentator Graham Norton in that role, and Portuguese 2017 winner Salvador Sobral pops up in a delicate interlude as an Edinburgh street performer. The movie’s obvious love for the bizarre excesses of Eurovision, and the fun it has with them, make you wish the filmmakers could have condensed all the messy plot padding and just harnessed the excitement of the show.
Production companies: Gary Sanchez/Gloria Sanchez, in association with The EBU
Cast: Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, Dan Stevens, Melissanthi Mahut, Mikael Persbrandt, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Graham Norton, Demi Lovato, Pierce Brosnan, Jamie Demetriou
Director: David Dobkin
Screenwriter: Will Ferrell, Andrew Steele
Producers: Will Ferrell, Jessica Elbaum, Chris Henchy
Executive producers: Adam McKay, Andrew Steele, Daniel M. Stillman, Jon Ola Sand, Nadja Burkhardt, Jan Hermenau
Director of photography: Danny Cohen
Production designer: Paul Inglis
Costume designer: Anna B. Sheppard
Music: Alti Örvarsson
Music supervisor: Becky Bentham
Executive music producer: Savan Kotecha
Editor: Greg Hayden
Visual effects supervisor: Jason Schugardt
Casting: Nina Gold
Rated PG-13, 123 minutes
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