Director: David Dobkin
Stars: Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, Dan Stevens
It’s been a long, shitty year and we’re only halfway through this mutha. But enough good news; there’s a new Will Ferrell comedy movie on Netflix.
That’s a little too snarky for my taste these days. Ferrell’s comic stylings are well-established. Indeed, he’s the Old Guard at this point. His improv blowhard shtick is, if nothing else, dependable, and has gotten him through hits (Anchorman) and misses (Get Hard). You know what you’re getting and there’s some reassurance in that. Ferrell has become… cosy.
Here he stars as Lars Erickssong, half of Icelandic pop duo Fire Saga, along with his possible-sister Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams). They play pubs and dream of becoming stars of the Eurovision Song Contest. When every other possible contestant in the country is obliterated in a yacht explosion, their dreams might just come true. Travelling to Scotland, Lars and Sigrit must overcome a number of odd situations, rival contestants and the weird sexual tension between them. If you’ve seen any version of the contest movie then you’re more or less armed for what’s to come. This isn’t really the venue for surprises and neither is that the point.
The uphill struggle in lambasting Eurovision is that, whatever ridiculousness you come up with, the contest itself has probably already topped it. As Americans, the creators of The Story of Fire Saga are outsiders looking in. They revel in throwing tacky ideas at the screen in an attempt to mock a cultural phenomenon that won’t let them in (there’s even an affectionate running-joke about European hostility to Americans). Most of Ferrell and co-writer Andrew Steele’s Eurovision parodies are neutered by the recognition that, yep, that’s how it is, actually. An auto-tuned viking is about right. Powering up a party scene with a group sing-along medley of ABBA’s “Waterloo”, Cher’s “Believe” and Madonna’s “Ray of Light” – featuring actual Eurovision winners – encapsulates the kitschy joie de vivre of the contest more effectively than the made-up acts that pepper the film.
Dan Stevens plays Russian contestant and ‘lion of love’ Alexander Lemtov, who offers Sigrit a romantic escape from Lars. Stevens might be the prize of the picture; he seems like he’s having the time of his life. In contrast, Pierce Brosnan is underused in the standard disapproving-father role. When it’s not parodying Eurovision itself, Fire Saga oddly sets its sights on yesteryear’s fantasy spectacles. The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones feel like bizarre reference points, but here they are, presumably because both have vaguely Nordic bits and are widely recognisable for US audiences. Who wants to research Europe anyway?
In the run-up to the contest itself, we’re presented a number of catchy pop numbers. Graham Norton cameos in his regular commentator’s role revealing that, unsurprisingly, the BBC’s coverage is the source of choice for director David Dobkin and co. If anything’s overlooked, it’s the plethora of uninspired ballads that usually populate Eurovision, making this mildly more pleasurable than the real thing.
At 2 hours and 3 minutes, this suffers the same more-is-less bagginess of most Ferrell comedies, but even if the gag ratio is relatively low, this effort mostly gets a pass because of how good-natured it all is. It’s tameness sort of saves the day. I don’t really see how you could hate it. Dobkin mounts a handsome production that, quite frankly, is most enjoyable when its acting like a leisurely tourism video. The funny bits aren’t particularly memorable, but the gentleness is kinda nice. It’s undemanding and surprisingly heartfelt. Fire Saga’s songs are… kinda good, too. Even “Ya Ya Ding-Dong”.
We all need a break from the bastard awfulness that is 2020, and Netflix is the perfect venue for Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga; the kind of amiable, low-stakes comedy movie that you can happily keep up with while spending all of your time looking at your phone anyway. Ordinarily, that’d be the most damning thing I could say about a film, but not everything needs to be great. Not everything needs your full attention. There’s a usefulness in something that’s kinda ignorable while not downright awful. A weird kind of achievement.
And yes, somewhat inevitably, the soundtrack is stacked with Sigur Rós because Iceland.