There are a fair few things that we Brits are particularly protective of; the correct way to brew a cup of tea, obviously, ranks highly as does our staunch belief that UK comedy series will always be superior to the American equivalents. Then there’s the Eurovision Song Contest which has served as a shining beacon of collective fun and self-deprecating pride in the UK ever since the annual music event began in 1956. So one could hardly embark on a viewing of Will Ferrell’s latest comedic offering, centered on an Icelandic musical duo’s journey through the competition, without some underlying feeling of skepticism.For not only has Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga been written, directed and produced by a team of Americans, whose country has had no vested interest in the singing event in its 64-year-history, but the last time Ferrell dived into British popular culture it resulted in the critically-panned Holmes & Watson. The 2018 film wasn’t screened to critics before its release but after, its Rotten Tomatoes score sank to 10% courtesy of damning reviews, including ours at IGN, which described the film as “a collection of limp comic set pieces and repeated riffs on the same three gags.”
Fortunately, the Eurovision Song Contest has less in common with that insult to the memory of Arthur Conan Doyle and more with the likes of Blades of Glory and Talledega Nights. The Netflix film centers on Icelandic singers Lars Erickssong (Ferrell) and Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams ) who grew up together in their remote fishing village and have been dreaming of competing in the annual event ever since they saw ABBA singing their way to victory with “Waterloo” in 1974. Several strokes of luck, or maybe elves (Icelanders are big believers in them), means their act Fire Saga is selected to represent Iceland, and so this Ferrel film once again follows the exploits of an oddball couple navigating a niche competitive arena.
The pair’s Nordic impressions are pretty impressive and Ferrell still has that singular ability to catch you off guard with seemingly ad-libbed one-liners and silly instances of physical humor. Even Lars’ rotating wardrobe – sourced, one assumes, from Instagram #OOTD hashtags – raises a smile but these moments are far too rare and padded out with lackluster cliches and obvious jokes.
McAdams offers earnest support as Sigrit, who is hoping to make sweet love as well as music with her singing partner, but whose affections have thus far gone unrequited. It’s a shame she’s never really given the chance to be as comical as Ferrell so her best moments are limited to when she’s singing but even the actress can’t take full credit for that – Swedish singer and former Junior Eurovision contestant Molly Sandén provided Sigrit’s belter of a singing voice.
It’s heartening that Ferrell, who co-wrote the script, has a clear affection for the competition. He might be an American but thanks to his Swedish wife he’s been watching the show for over 20 years. The film refuses to mock the Song Contest, instead, it affectionately teases the idiosyncrasies that make Eurovision such a campy, poptastic affair while celebrating the vibrant musicality that is delivered annually by the 50+ countries who compete. There are more than a few parody bops that deserve repeat listening after the credits roll, “Double Trouble” and “Volcano Man,” in particular. There’s also a lovely sing-off scene featuring several past Eurovision winners belting out a medley of pop classics as they dance around a Scottish stately home that Outlander fans might recognize underneath the garish decorations and well-endowed statues. The film even got the UK’s Eurovision host Graham Norton to play himself and deliver commentary during several scenes, though he’s far less cutting than usual.
More ardent fans might find themselves pulling an Alan Partridge by screaming at the TV, “stop getting Eurovision wrong!” every so often. In one scene, Alexander jokes that everyone hates the UK because they get “nil points” each year, which is fair, but as the event is being hosted in Scotland that would mean the UK are the reigning champs. This nonsensical error is furthered when the ceremony is hosted by a pair of non-Brits, which seems like an odd thing to get wrong given how much effort went into making this movie authentic in other places.
It’s admirable that the film doesn’t shy away from the recent Eurovision controversy involving Russia’s homophobia and clearly the film champions the competition’s campaign for inclusivity by delivering several LGBTQI cameos. But that message is somewhat dampened by the fact that nearly every speaking character is white while people of color serve primarily as window dressing.
Adding these things up, Eurovision Song Contest becomes a film of inconsistencies. It doesn’t quite capture the magic of Will Ferrell’s early buddy comedies but still delivers enough heart and merriment to earn at least six points from the viewing public.
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