Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is—let’s be honest here—a bit on the thin side, and a little confusing. It’s got just enough sincerity to undermine its own satirical impulses and just enough pandering snark to undermine its own sincerity. It runs long, and it leans on a trope, Ferrell’s master trope and the common denominator in most of his best performances—the lovable but fundamentally clueless and self-absorbed man-baby who can’t get out of his own way. It’s a trope that, thanks to Ferrell himself, we have mined pretty thoroughly in comedy over the last few decades. And yet, even as Eurovision Song Contest makes a number of perplexing moves in its two-hour-plus runtime, you kind of can’t help rooting for it, and for its principal characters, because its refusal to be cynical operates as a vital, oxygenating escape hatch right now.
Lars Erickssong (Ferrell) is an Icelandic man-baby who has grown up in a small fishing town dreaming of winning the Eurovision Song Contest. His talented partner, Sigrit Eriksdottir (Rachel McAdams), who might or might not be his half sister (it’s a really small town), just wants to be with Lars. The two of them are goofy, clueless and unfortunately accident-prone. The village laughs at Lars and wonders what Sigrit sees in him. (The villagers share this with the audience.) They find themselves unexpectedly selected to represent Iceland in the competition. The hijinks? They ensue. Predictably—seriously, this film’s beats are firmly in the set-your-watch-by-it range—Lars’ father (Pierce Brosnan) is a taciturn family-pride grumpus who is a precise, direct analogue for Jon Voight’s character in Zoolander. There’s an entirely predictable rhythm to the character arcs and the story points. (In several places I anticipated the dialogue with 100% accuracy.) The film isn’t sure whether it loves its protagonists or hates them; it can’t seem to fully commit to whether Fire Saga is a cringeworthy or talented duo. The hedging about whether we are laughing at these characters or with them is only increased by Ferrell being … Ferrell. He’s doing it with aplomb, to be sure, but it sets us up for confusion. The film seems unable to decide whether these people are a disaster, or lovable underdogs.
Fire Saga has things going for it that make it incredibly watchable, and perhaps even “good” or “successful.” For one thing, the songs themselves are deucedly catchy and clever. Also, it has the wildly underrated Rachel McAdams. The woman is funny. I mean, like, ridiculously, scene-stealingly funny. She has a patient, understated sort of charisma that just doesn’t quit. Add in Dan Stevens as Lemtov, a decadent crooner from Russia who tries to get between the Icelanders, and there is so much quiet force on screen that Ferrell’s hallmark bumbling and bluster and noise become almost confusing. But not really. Because Ferrell’s doing what he does best, too: he’s inflecting a fundamentally absurd character with enough sincerity and vulnerability to make the whole thing as compelling as it is bizarre. And the direction, sometimes confusingly but in the end wisely, resists the temptation to create a biting kind of satire that would probably be all too easy to create out of the camp-overstim splendor of the contest. He gets into it instead, looking for moments of authenticity and good-heartedness in the midst of all the glitter. Easter eggs abound for anyone who loves the Eurovision Song Contest. (Past contestants show up, and I’m pretty sure Ferrell spoofs a Jonsi costume among other things.)
In the end, the Eurovision Song Contest is so opulently campy in its own right that maybe it’s difficult terrain for cringe-comedy, especially given Ferrell’s very strong impulse to temper the embarrassment with liberal splashes of genuine, good-natured sentimentality. If the film went all the way to “surreal” or all the way to “spoof” or all the way to “find a 100% sincere story in the wicky-wacky framework of this cultural event,” it might be easier to know how to feel about it. Nonetheless, this is a fun film. It’ll make you laugh, sometimes out loud and sometimes in spite of yourself. There is at least one sustenuto high note that will blow your head off in a good way. And it is a blessed, blessed break from the onslaught of doom, rage, eye-rolling and existential angst that you’re getting a face full of every other time you look at a screen. Not all of the jokes land. Sometimes it feels like we’ve already internalized everything Will Ferrell is ever going to have to say as a comedian. Sometimes the line the film walks between taking the mickey and being genuine is a little fuzzy. But it’s fun. A director with a pretty strong impulse to be cutting instead finds himself enthralled by an excess of sincerity and he rolls with it, and it’s really fun.
Director: David Dobkin
Writers: Will Ferrell, Andrew Steele
Starring: Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, Dan Stevens
Release Date: June 26, 2020 (Netflix)
Amy Glynn writes, and welcomes respite where she finds it.