The truth is, I don’t always gravitate toward Will Ferrell’s movies. At this point I’d like to preemptively ask people to chill out. I’m not trying to disparage Will Ferrell or his movies or your taste in movies and I don’t need you to convince me I’m wrong. It can be your thing without it being my thing and neither of us has to be wrong. (This is also just a good life lesson.) On the other hand, I have a very large soft spot for Eurovision music videos (and, honestly, for a lot of cheesy pop songs), an inclination I attribute in part to a youth spent watching a whole lot of ice dancing and the show Video Hits on the CBC. So, this is a long-winded way of saying I was a bit torn when it came to whether or not to commit to two plus hours of watching Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (a title that reads like a high school term paper written by a student who has just discovered colons). I definitely didn’t want some sardonic (yes, I see the irony) take on Eurovision, but my husband insisted he had heard that it was actually a sweet movie. And, in truth, this is a farcical and genuinely endearing story of community, love, and passion via the magic of over-the-top pop music numbers, brocade suit jackets, questionable accents, and stuffed crotches that I’m glad I took the time to watch. (Much of the extra running time is due musical interludes, which makes it feel not as long, in my opinion.) The reason I think it works as well as it does is that Will Ferrell is a mega-fan of Eurovision in real life, and so the movie is less satire (can you even satirize something as camp and extravagant as Eurovision?) and more homage to the institution and artists. Holy hair extensions! Did I just take over 200 words to tell you that I don’t always like Will Ferrell movies, but I enjoyed this one? I did! Let’s move on.
In the tiny northern Icelandic town of Húsavik (a real place), Lars Erikssong (Will Ferrell) and Sigrit Ericksdóttir (Rachel McAdams) dream of making it on stage at Eurovision. It’s a love affair that began when ABBA’s Eurovision performance of “Waterloo” pulled Lars out of mourning the death of his mother and Sigrit into speaking (and singing) (and loving Lars). Can I just pause here to say that I’m irked that while Lars and Sigrit appear to be around the same age, Rachel McAdams is eleven years younger than Will Ferrell? Why do we have to keep casting far younger women as contemporaries of far older men? Well, you and I know it’s because it’s icky when women do things like age, but it’s hot when men do it. That said, Rachel McAdams is entirely perfect for this role and I would have enjoyed it far less without her in it, so I’m irked in the general sense, but also very pleased with her presence in this specific case. Life is a complicated journey, my friends.
Where was I? Right! Lars’s father (Pierce Brosnan, an excellent example of a man who gets older, while his co-stars often stay the same age) doesn’t approve of pretty much anything Lars does, but especially wasting his time practicing music with Sigrit in the garage. Sigrit’s mother warns her that Lars is holding her back from her full potential. Neither of them listen, as they are devoted to each other and driven by Lars’s desire to move on from being forced to play another round of “Ja Ja Ding Dong” (a peppily dirty bop that will be stuck in your head for days) to the drunk crowd at the local bar and make it big. Sigrit is happier than Lars with their life as it is, but she’s also glad to share in his dream. There’s a running joke about people assuming they’re brother and sister—Lars’s father gets as much action as you’d expect a man who looks and sounds like Pierce Brosnan to get in a tiny isolated town where the winters are long and dark and cold—which Lars says is possible and Sigrit insists is absolutely not true, but they’re also clearly in love with each other. It’s not creepy the way it might sound. By pure chance, they make it to the Icelandic finals where their performance is an unmitigated disaster (except for Lars’s boots, which are amazing). Literally no one expects them to actually make it to Eurovision, especially when their competition includes Katiana Lindsdóttir (Demi Lovato, a brief, but weak spot in the film), the favorite of the Icelandic Eurovision Committee. (Though my personal favorite was the 21st Century Viking. You were robbed Mr. Viking, sir!)
But then, either by chance or by the intervention of the elves to whom Sigrit makes regular offerings or by some nefarious doings, all of the competition is eliminated and Lars and Sigrit, much to the dismay of the selection committee and pretty much everyone else in Iceland, find themselves headed to Scotland for the competition.
Part of what makes the movie enjoyable is Lars and Sigrit’s (but especially Sigrit’s) unabashed joy and wonder with pretty much anything and everything, including seeing each other across a parking lot. They call their very standard hotel swish and are joyous to find a stocked minibar, they are thrilled to bits with tall champagne glasses, they squeal when people open doors for them, and they are fully awed and humbled to be on stage at Eurovision. I know this sounds like it could be annoying, and maybe it will be to you, but it’s not overplayed, and I found their characters’ wide-eyed devotion to each other and to always being true to their own weird-o selves pretty frickin’ beguiling. Of course, they have a thwarted love thing going on where the feelings are there, but for one reason or another they can’t act on them. Obviously, there will be an added layer of a love triangle of sorts and seemingly divergent goals to keep us on our toes, so we can pretend we don’t all know exactly the direction in which things are headed. You might call it all too predictable. I call it it comforting.
I squealed several times when people appeared on screen. I’ve already told you about the 21st Century Viking (Milan van Weelden), but then there is also Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (who I loved in Trapped and need to get back to watching in Lady Dynamite), Mikael Persbrandt (who I adore as Jakob in Sex Education), Jamie Demetriou (who I fear is getting type-cast, but man have I loved to watch him be a snot in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Fleabag, and The Great), and Jon Kortajarena (whose cheekbones are the reason I watched two seasons of High Seas). But, as is so often the case in life, it was the person I wasn’t expecting who stole my heart and the entire movie (and makes me snort with glee even now as I rewatch parts to gather screen shots). Dan Stevens as Alexander Lemtov, the bare-chested brocade jacket wearing, and clearly closeted Russian heartthrob, is ethereal, hilarious, touching, over-the-top, deeply human, and sublimely excessive. After their first meeting Lars warns Sigrit, “You have to watch that guy. He is a sex-player.” (A line I will be stealing.) And then they mutually agree that he likely has a very large penis. While I cannot speak to that, I can say that you should watch this movie to see Dan Stevens’s simpering facial expressions and amazing performance of “Lion of Love” (where I’m still not sure that a Jonas brother isn’t dancing back up).
I feel silly describing a movie in which a character describes his penis as Volvo-like in its unflashy reliability and where there are giant statues of Dan Stevens as Alexander sporting enormous, dangly penises as understated, but at the same time…I mean, it kind of is. Or maybe that it’s just the right level of absurd, mostly letting the outrageous costumes, performances, and characters speak for themselves without beating you over the head with the wackiness of Eurovision. And there is such a lack of mean-spiritedness. I mean, sure there’s a villain, but he’s a minor character and his villainous ways don’t throw a pall over the whole movie. Where you’d expect people, like the competing performers, to be snide or cruel, they are more loving and supportive, while still being wildly competitive. The same is true of the gags and jokes in the movie. They’re silly, absurd, and sometimes preposterous, but it’s as if the movie is laughing along with the characters, rather than at them. And couldn’t we all use more of that in our lives right now?
Look, if you think Eurovision and earworm pop songs are annoying, or, to back up one step further, if you think ABBA is an abomination (THE AUDACITY!), then you likely won’t be charmed by the “spontaneous” Sing-a-Long midway through the film with cameos by former Eurovision contestants. Maybe you won’t find the rapper Jonny Jon Jon’s line “I told my Pop to mow the lawn on his own. I’m coolin’ with the homies” amusing and catchy. But maybe you’ll be more taken with the gag when Lars tips over a porta potty with someone inside, which was a moment in the movie I felt could have been left out.
On the other hand, I’m not claiming to be a dyed-in-the-wool Eurovision believer, more of a casual observer, so I can’t say how the movie will sit if you live and breathe Eurovision. If, for example, you didn’t need IMDB to tell you that Lars performing while running a hamster wheel was an homage to the Ukranian singer Mariya Yaremchuk’s performance of her 2014 song “Tick – Tock.”
But if you’re like me and enjoy some lavish stage performances of ridiculously catchy songs and openly ridiculous humor mixed in with your comfortable romantic story where two people manage to make an entire community richer just by being true to each other and their dreams, then this one might be just the escape you maybe didn’t know you needed.