A tortuously overlong and largely unfunny send-up of a subject that reliably makes fun of itself already, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is an off-key dud for Netflix and Will Ferrell.
How do you make fun of something that so reliably makes fun of itself? This, I think, is the important question looming above Will Ferrell’s overlong and largely unfunny new Netflix comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. It’s attempting to send-up and make ridiculous something that already prides itself on its own prancing ridiculousness. And somewhere in that earnest but misguided attempt to expose an American audience to the hairsprayed, sequinned pleasures of the competition, it also wants to tell an uplifting, sincere love story. In two tortuously long hours, it accomplishes neither.
But that isn’t to say it doesn’t really try, and that effort in crafting a musical parody comes through in some decent performance numbers and the odd solid gag for those in the know, like when Europe’s well-publicized dislike of Britain is nonchalantly made fun of, and when Graham Norton shows up as himself and is blessedly allowed to commentate just as he does over the real thing – which is to say as though he’s only doing it for a laugh and a wage. But these cheeky in-jokes are the only funny bits, and they’re also the smallest, wedged between interminable stretches of Will Ferrell doing his usual shouty, arrogant buffoon shtick.
This, by the way, is a shtick I’ve been keen on in the past – I will still vehemently defend Step Brothers and Talladega Nights as all-time-great comedies, and not just within his peculiar oeuvre. But it’s a shtick that almost everyone except Ferrell is tired of now, which I suppose is a matter made more complicated for him by the fact that nobody liked his recent attempts – see the execrable Downhill from this year – to do something different with it. Eurovision Song Contest, then, finds him doubling-down on all his classic bits in the mistaken belief that he has finally found the right setting for them. In a sense he has; just not in the sense that anyone actually intended.
Ferrell, notably not Icelandic, nonetheless plays Lars Erickssong, a lanky Eurovision-obsessed musician from a remote fishing village who forms one half of the titular Fire Saga, an amateur synth-pop duo comprised of him and the equally un-Icelandic Rachel McAdams as Sigrit Erickssdottir. McAdams is a gift from the big-screen comedy gods even here, in a screenplay that can’t decide if she’s Lars’s lifelong friend, obsessed devotee, or indeed, thanks to the womanizing past of his father, Erick (Pierce Brosnan), his sister. On the subject of things the film can’t decide on, the musical aptitude of Fire Saga seems to waver from one scene to the next. They’re either a national embarrassment or low-key musical prodigies, or perhaps both. They’re best-known for a ridiculous novelty song, yet they perform some tunes that wouldn’t seem out of place in the real contest; they get through to Eurovision on a technicality but are then voted through to the finals anyway, seemingly earnestly, after a calamitous performance.
Needless to say, this all makes precious little sense. Many Ferrell comedies don’t, of course, but most aren’t trying to make a larger satirical point about the unifying force of good-natured musical spectacle either. Since Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga can’t even decide if its title act is any good or not, we as an audience can’t decide which aspects of the film we’re supposed to take seriously – if any at all.
With such a spacious runtime, it’s obvious that the film is interested in Lars and Sigrit beyond their function as broad Nordic stereotypes, and it’s equally obvious that it sees the eponymous contest as important to them and the other participants, but it never bothers to try and figure out why. In fact, one assumes to do right by the official Eurovision branding, virtually every character is stripped of any cultural specificity. Dan Stevens is loving life as Alexander Lemtov, an oversexed Russian favorite with an eye – and perhaps other things – for Sigrit, but nothing about him feels in any way Russian; his shtick boils down to being flamboyantly camp, while his status as a well-endowed love rival keeps his preening portrayal from crossing over into bad taste. All the film is this anodyne and safe, even an ill-advised affair between Lars and gorgeous Greek entrant Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut) that later results in Lars breathlessly exclaiming that he’s going to have sex with everyone nearby.
Written down that sounds quite amusing, but in context, it’s just a tedious, petulant outburst, which is all Lars amounts to. Sigrit makes for a better case study, but the film’s too absurd for us to take her plight seriously and too sincere to allow her to be really funny. What we’re supposed to think of Eurovision is similarly unclear. Thanks to current global mishaps, there won’t be a new edition this year, positioning Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga in the awkward, unenviable position of being the closest thing to it that fans will get. If they skip it, though, I wouldn’t say they’re missing anything.