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With Will Ferrell’s latest “comedy” for Netflix, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, everybody loses.
Eurovision is a beloved cultural institution, last year attracting a staggering 182 million viewers to see Dutch singer-songwriter Duncan Laurence win in Tel Aviv. For the first time since its 1956 inauguration, Eurovision 2020 has been cancelled. No points for guessing why.
Barring some virtuoso domestic karaoke, to fill the gap we are offered Will Ferrell’s new Netflix film, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. Despite claims of the best of intentions, the film is terrible, and an affront to Eurovision, Europe, and comedy.
Ferrell’s filmography and comedic style often reduces down to pointing at slightly quirky things and pulling a funny face. In the early days, he applied this for great success to the likes of fashion (Zoolander), college (Old School) and Christmas (Elf). Much of the humour was derived from his being an adult man doing childish things, which only get more sinister the older he gets.
As a broad trend, his career is defined by diminishing returns, lately offering either complete misfires (Holmes & Watson) or inferior sequels (to Anchorman, Zoolander, Daddy’s Home, The Lego Movie). Nonetheless, his work surrounds him with funny people, popular comedies are necessary now more than ever, and Eurovision itself is inherently amusing, though critically with everyone in on the joke.
Upon learning of Eurovision through his Swedish wife, Ferrell pointed at the thing and decided to make a film of it. Terribly conceived from the start, Ferrell cast himself as Lars Erickssong, a rural Icelander whose dream is to win Eurovision, after witnessing ABBA’s 1974 ‘Waterloo’ victory. Borderline exploiting his best friend Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) from that moment on, the pair comprise Fire Saga, an impassioned but awful bar band.
Regarding creepiness, aside from over 50-year-old Ferrell’s off-putting mugging, his concept characterises youthful (by more-than 10 years) McAdams effectively as a Stockholm Syndrome-victim. Sigrit is supposedly barely younger, yet visibly jars against Ferrell’s relative grisliness, repeatedly making impromptu major creative decisions about her performance and appearance without consulting her or even notifying her ahead of time.
Yet, the film’s major subplot is Sigrit’s unrequited romantic love for Lars, herself devout in pursuing his dream with little space to explore her own. This is further problematised by the timescale of apparently almost 50 years (1974-present) and an enduring joke about them maybe actually being brother and sister. Unfortunately, the inherent queasiness of this central relationship is only one grievance on a longer list.
Director David Dobkin and Ferrell have claimed sincere intention to accurately depict Eurovision in its legitimate glory. To its credit, the film’s main strength is offering a reasonably credible portrayal of the contest as a backdrop to Ferrell’s nonsense. Key fictional performances were filmed on-site at 2019 Tel Aviv, and the montage of countries’ performances are directly inspired by past contenders, such as Lordi and Who See.
A central set-piece is essentially a bizarre sing-along featuring at least 10 notable past performers, while Ferrell and McAdams aimlessly marauding amongst them. Therein is the crux of the film’s problem, caught awkwardly between mawkish homage and futile parody. With the blessing of Eurovision, Ferrell and co. were granted unprecedented access, only to self-defeat both factually and comedically.
For instance, a key rule is that the contest’s winning country hosts the following year. Bafflingly, Edinburgh is the film’s venue, despite featuring a joke acknowledging the UK’s complete ostracisation by all other nations. Additionally, they manage an own-goal-inception by naming Glasgow’s airport and arena as Edinburgh’s, sparking fury from residents.
As with all failed comedies, the bottom line is that the film is not funny. Like politics has become, Eurovision is perhaps beyond parody. What’s clear from The Story of Fire Saga is that Will Ferrell is not the man for the job, blundering with McAdams through wince-inducing Icelandic accents that confound them into forgetting to make us laugh.
A small grace is that this allows for supporting roles to shine brighter than the leads, including Dan Stevens, Mikael Persbrandt (Sex Education’s hot plumber Jakob) and an intensely silver-foxy Pierce Brosnan as Lars’ deeply embarrassed father—frankly, offering the most relatable character. If only all involved had his level of self-awareness.
If you’re a glutton for punishment, or one of those people that thinks critics don’t “get” comedy, you can stream Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga on Netflix now.
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I write about and curate film, based in Birmingham. Programme Coordinator for World of Film International Festival, screening new independent world cinema in Glasgow and beyond. Equally devoted to the popular and the niche. Lover of live music, hardcore punk and festival season.