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‘Eurovision Song Contest’ Review: Overlong Will Ferrell-Rachel McAdams comedy is enjoyable when it leans into the outrageous

When the laughs come, they come strong in the new Netflix movie, but overwrought sincerity holds the movie back.
Credit: Netflix

I’m just gonna throw this out there at the onset: Up until only a few days before I watched it, I thought Netflix’s newest comedy release, “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (not to be confused with “A Song of Ice and Fire”) was centered around a fictional singing competition. Granted, I’ve seen about three full episodes of “American Idol” in my lifetime. So chances were low I’d know about an annual singing competition across the pond, one that’s essentially the Olympics of music with Cirque-du-Soleil-level production values, origins dating back to before 60-year-old Simon Cowell was even born and the ability to boast about introducing ABBA to the world.  

Lo and behold, the Eurovision Song Contest is very much a thing—and a wonderfully weird thing at that. And in the best moments of its overlong, overstuffed, but occasionally engaging story, “Eurovision Song Contest” matches the wonderful weirdness of the real-life competition that it’s effectively serving as a pseudo-tribute to. Think “Talladega Nights’” frivolous portrayal of NASCAR, with a few dashes of sincerity.  

The movie, helmed by “Wedding Crashers” director David Dobkin, is a familiar formula of dreamers and hometown pride tinged with pop-music spectacle and Will Ferrell’s special brand of bumbling cringe humor that the 52-year-old actor has spent the last decade trying to keep relevant. Following a screenplay from Ferrell and Andrew Steele, “Eurovision Song Contest” follows Ferrell’s man-child Lars Erickssong and Rachel McAdams’s talented Sigrit Ericksdottir, two sharp-accented Icelandic musicians whose dreams for Eurovision glory are initiated when they, as young children, see ABBA performing “Waterloo” on the show.

Fast-forward several years, the dream is still intact—even as Lars is endlessly shamed by his father, Erick (Pierce Brosnan), and Sigrit’s desire to remain close to Lars goes beyond career aspiration. A multitude of original songs – some you could hear on the radio today, others that lean into the parody of it all – were created for “Eurovision Song Contest,” and the first we get a taste of is “Volcano Man,” a power-pop ballad created by our heroes and performed with enough passion and flair that you’d think they might actually have the right stuff…only to realize they’re practicing in the garage as life is passing them by. Meanwhile, the local bar crowd would rather Lars and Sigrit play “Ja Ja Ding Dong” for the seventh time than the original tune they hope will get them into the Icelandic song contest, and beyond. If their own neighbors can’t take them seriously, how could anyone else?

This being a Ferrell comedy, logic takes a backseat to extreme non-sequitur. The plot takes some convenient turns (and others veering toward the expectedly ludicrous) and “Fire Saga” – as Lars and Sigrit call themselves – suddenly finds itself in the spotlight they’ve been seeking all their lives. Meanwhile, the Icelandic committee that shepherded them there is just hoping their country won’t become the laughingstock of Europe.

If “Eurovision Song Contest’s” two-hour runtime feels much longer from the lack of dramatic ingenuity – and it sure is – the movie is injected with some life when it’s crowd-surfing on its own euphoric zaniness. It’s difficult in some scenes not to think Ferrell, Steele and Dobkin are mocking the real-life contest instead of glorifying its international appeal. But there’s also no resisting the urge to jump up and dance during an extended “song-along” sequence that’s essentially a Riff-Off scene from “Pitch Perfect” given a delightful high from eager camera flourishes and the bonding of strangers through music.

Credit: Netflix

But there’s ample oddity in “Eurovision Song Contest” as well, much of it characterized by Dan Stevens’s hilarious Alexander Lemtov, the deep-voiced Russian singer who’s competed so many times that he looks forward to the parties more than the competition at this point. I can already see the calls for Netflix to green-light a Lemtov spinoff, and I’d eagerly watch it. Stevens, best-known for his roles in “Downton Abbey” and Disney’s latest “Beauty and the Beast” remake, plays the same kind of sex-crazed archetype we expect to see in a Ferrell comedy, but he brings a swagger and unpredictability that has the tendency to steal scenes from his screen partners…

…unless that screen partner is McAdams, who’s increasingly proven in the years since “The Notebook” that she’s got a funny side as well as a timelessly sentimental appeal. Ferrell’s brand of perverse morality has grown a bit stale, and McAdams outshines him in every interaction with the refined dialogue delivery and on-point timing of a comedic veteran. It helps that Sigrit is given some of the best ongoing bits; I never became weary of her near-religious devotion to magical elves that apparently live outside her Icelandic town and their supposed abilities to make her desire come true (whether the elves actually exist or not is the movie’s only true intrigue). There’s a touch of naivete to the way Sigrit is written, but McAdams never allows it to overwhelm a character with conflicting dreams and myriad reasons to be frustrated at the men around her.

Your mileage will vary elsewhere in “Eurovision Song Contest” depending on how well the Ferrell shtick has aged and if you can overlook jarring tonal readjustments that blunt the movie’s attempt at showing its heart in the third act. On the whole, this is a better offering than Will Ferrell’s other 2020 movie, “Downhill,” but every minute it spends leaning into cheap earnestness is a minute taken away from the chaotic energy that suits it better. Lessons are learned about the hazards of self-prophecy and about finding the real victories in life—material that other movies have explored with deeper commitment and more satisfying payoff without being burdened by balancing a fading comedic star with an emerging one.

"Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga" is rated PG-13 for crude sexual material including full nuce sculptures, some comic violent images and language. It's on Netflix now. 

Starring: Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, Pierce Brosnan, Dan Stevens

Directed by David Dobkin

2020

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