Sweetly goofy and joyous, “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” could be considered a comeback film for Will Ferrell, even if his co-star steals it from him. Once one of the comedy genre’s biggest stars, Ferrell hasn’t had a hit in a years —his recent comedy “Holmes & Watson” nearly killed the critic we assigned to cover for this site (on Christmas Day!). One could argue the last comedy he headlined that really worked came a decade ago (“The Other Guys”).
Premiering on Netflix today, “Eurovision” reunites Ferrell with “Wedding Crashers” director David Dobkin, and presents the “SNL” alum the chance to be silly in that endearing way that built his fanbase in the first place. For the most part, it works, assisted greatly by the perfect comic timing of Rachel McAdams, who can sell ridiculous behavior with a straight face in ways that deserves way more critical attention. (Her performance doing exactly that in “Game Night” is one of the best comedy turns of the last few years.) Like a lot of comedies, it relies a bit too heavily on a romantic relationship that doesn’t make a lot of sense and the running time drags right when the movie should be building up steam, but there’s an infectious charm to most of what works about “Eurovision,” not unlike the international competition itself.
Ferrell plays Lars Erickssong, an Icelandic man-child who lives with his father (Pierce Brosnan) and whose life was changed the day he saw ABBA perform “Waterloo” on the Eurovision music contest, a long-running, multi-country affair that’s kind of like a European “American Idol” if every contestant was from a different country and it had a lot more fire effects, dry ice, and general spectacle. Obsessed with getting on Eurovision himself, Lars and his BFF Sigrid (McAdams) form a duo called Fire Saga, sending in their audition tape, which is randomly chosen by a group of Icelandic producers to fill out a roster for their country’s finals. They have an obvious winner in a talent named Katiana (Demi Lovato), so they just need another act to meet the contest requirements. Of course, Sigrid and Lars have other plans.
Through a series of funny accidents that are best left unspoiled, Fire Saga ends up making it to the main show, and “Eurovision Song Contest” allows Dobkin, a music video director, to stage some elaborate numbers, including a singalong at a party that blends together hits like Madonna’s “Ray of Light” and Cher’s “Believe.” It’s an undeniably goofy moment that captures the overall tone of the film well. “Eurovision Song Contest” is at its best when it sings its silly heart out, embracing the power of creative expression in a way that is familiar but can be undeniably enjoyable when done with this much exuberance. If anything, it feels like Ferrell’s greatest hits in the way it reflects things he’s done well before, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Like the contest itself or the lip-sync number to the pop hits, the amount of pure heart goes a long way in selling the familiar. And there’s something refreshing about a modern comedy that doesn’t feel cynical about human nature or manufactured by a focus group like so many have lately.
Ferrell’s skill with goofy man-children is well-documented but this comedy should remind people of the underrated range of Rachel McAdams, who once again just nails a comedy role. Her timing is never off and often inspired—she has a reaction beat after an explosion that’s just perfect. And she even finds a way to sell the thinnest aspect of the film in its underdeveloped love story. There’s something underwritten about how Lars can’t see that Sigrid is in love with him because he’s so focused on his career, but viewers will struggle to figure out what she sees in him other than a musical partner. It’s also worth giving a shout-out to Dan Stevens, who plays the super-macho Russian frontrunner to win Eurovision in a way that walks that fine line of being exaggerated without veering into caricature.
Like way too many modern comedies and a lot of Netflix movies, “Eurovision Song Contest” is just too long. There’s no reason for this movie to inch past two hours. It’s a film about spectacle, so maybe it makes sense that it’s a little bloated, but there’s a tighter version of this movie that works significantly better, lessening some of the lulls between laughs. Still, with nowhere to go and little to do this summer, a comedy this defiantly silly could be coming along at just the right time for people. We can’t actually reunite with old pals, but something like a reunion with a funny friend could be the next best thing.