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For years I didn’t understand the appeal of the Eurovision Song Contest. In some ways I still don’t understand why the better part of 200 million people tune in to watch mostly horrendous music – seriously, whose idea was Scooch? – outlandish costumes and voting from tedious national presenters.
That said, I get it more now. In its daftness, Eurovision is completely self-aware, and the least pretentious of Europeans luxuriate in it every year as they indulge in a little harmless national pride. Everyone involved is in on the joke, and they carry on having the same unadulterated fun regardless, purely for its own sake, and because it’s an event with a deeply positive vibe. And that’s precisely why spending two hours weakly attempting to mock it is a curious choice in Netflix’s newest movie.
Either way, the person who clearly understands the show’s absurd charm is Will Ferrell, writer and one half of the fictional Icelandic band, Fire Saga. Having been introduced to the madcap enterprise by his Swedish wife in 1999, Ferrell has since attended the Lisbon semi-finals of the contest in 2018 and it’s clear he gets what makes the European curio tick with his and director David Dobkin’s (Wedding Crashers, Shanghai Knights) film, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.
Alongside the inclusion of previous winners such as Israel’s Izhar Cohen and a witheringly trademark turn from Graham Norton, official backing from the European Broadcasting Union also lends the film its authenticity – it was intended to coincide with the now-cancelled finals in the Netherlands this year. While that’s the root of the film’s scarce few triumphs, it’s also, more often that not, behind its many failings.
Rachel McAdams (playing Sigrit Ericsdottir) joins Ferrell (playing Lars Ericsson) as the other half of Fire Saga as the pair of would-be lovers with dreams of musical stardom. They may also be siblings, which is one of many jokes punching down at small settlements like their hometown of Husavik. Ever since he was first entranced by Abba’s Eurovision performances as a boy, Lars has sought to win the competition at the expense of everything else, growing into the familiar man-child characters we’ve seen from Ferrell before. As his father Eric (Pierce Brosnan) watches on, looking thoroughly bored as his trite character arc takes him from disapproving to proud dad, Sigrit and Lars somehow find themselves on an unlikely path to the Eurovision finals in Edinburgh.
The problem is this story that frames the finals and semi-finals of the contest is as unfunny as it is needless. If Ferrell isn’t improvising, his lines are written awfully: he’s clearly supposed to be the font of the jokes, but Ferrell’s shtick outstays its welcome quickly as an awkward McAdams, and a supporting cast including an under served Natasia and Jamie Demetriou, are left to flounder. Step Brothers, this isn’t. Dan Stevens as Lars’ extravagant Russian rival Alexander Lemtov, however, does admirably in his attempts to pout his way through the mostly entertainment-free hours.
Especially jarring are the many and various dick jokes, in what is a film about a largely family-friendly talent show. Lars stuffs his trousers to enhance his crotch in a tight, white bodysuit and compares his dependable manhood to a Volvo. Even more out-of-place are the dismembered, literally smoldering apparitions of Demi Lovato’s Katiana, Iceland’s promising Eurovision hopeful who (spoiler alert!) dies in a boat explosion.
Nevertheless, backing from the EBU has made the film’s impressive Eurovision scenes possible. The wild crowds, cacophony of auto-tuned eurotrash and outrageously spangled costumes feel true to the competition in moments that are rare diamonds in Fire Saga’s mostly humorless rough. If they can put the clearly foreshadowed stage gaffs to one side, fans hurting at the lack of Eurovision this year may get something from it.
That said, this official seal of approval means effective jokes at the contest’s expense lack any real bite. Moments in which men in black, metal-style garb screech dissonant high-pitched pop may raise a chuckle if you’ve not seen it done better in the real-life show. And the intended-as-masculine but unwittingly homoerotic Russian performance would have been more amusing had the Putin-bashing gag not been explained later on. But it isn’t any funnier when the film’s focus is off the leash either: on contemporary America, Ferrell spouts near-unintelligible, but hopefully at least cathartic, word-vomit about opiates and border walls.
With the insatiably gauche excess of the Eurovision Song Contest in mind, it would take an impressive feature-length comedy to make this lurid talent show of nations any more preposterous than it already is, and The Story of Fire Saga absolutely isn’t that. As it attempts to ridicule the already-ridiculous, any potential laughs are held back due to its official ties with the organizer. The result is a faithful recreation of the event for pop-starved fans, at least in short bursts, bookended by an abominable framing story full of ill-judged rants and dick jokes. While Fire Saga doesn’t quite score the dreaded nil points, it fizzles out into something pretty close.