With strong online buzz, a quick “number one movie” ranking on Netflix’s top-ten, and a strong incentive for repeat viewing, Eurovision is the closest thing Will Ferrell’s had to an all-around hit since The LEGO Movie in 2014.
I’m of two minds about David Dobkins’ Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, at least in terms of its theoretical commercial potential. It wasn’t that long ago, twice in 2015, when Will Ferrell was a reliable opener posting $30-$35 million opening weekends for mainstream theatrical comedies like Get Hard and Daddy’s Home. Ferrell’s comic vehicles since 2015 (The House, Daddy’s Home 2, Holmes and Watson) have struggled, like every previously viable comic movie star save for Kevin Hart. Audience tastes have shifted from seeing big comedies in theaters to watching them at home on streaming or VOD platforms. However, they still usually show up for splashy, big-hearted live-action musicals, which is exactly what Eurovision happens to be.
Eurovision is a knowing throwback to the kind of underdog sports comedy that typified the conventional Will Ferrell comic vehicle. Think Talladega Nights: The Ricky Bobby Story, Blades of Glory and Semi-Pro. In fact, in the “nay” column in terms of its box office chances, Eurovision most resembles the open-hearted and deeply sympathetic Semi-Pro. That bawdy comedy starred Ferrell as an owner of a losing American Basketball Association team as the now mostly forgotten league was in its death throes. Semi-Pro was ironically the last movie before New Line Cinema became merely a subdivision of Warner Bros., which made it (and its failure) somewhat meta. The $55 million, R-rated comedy earned just $43 million worldwide in February of 2008.
I’m not going to pretend that Semi-Pro is an underappreciated masterpiece. It’s not, and I understood in 2008 why it performed as poorly as it did. Blame an R-rating, mediocre reviews, a grounded and less over-the-top comic palette and the aforementioned “New Line’s last dance” variable. Nonetheless, it’s a solid character comedy, with authentic 1970’s atmosphere and strong performances from Woody Harrelson and André Benjamin in service of an occasionally funny but always engaging underdog melodrama. Like Eurovision, I cared more about the characters than I laughed at the jokes. And like the newest Netflix
There’s a sequence at 46 minutes into the 123-minute Eurovision that stands as one of the most enjoyable cinematic sequences in any film this year. It’s a somewhat stand-alone musical “sing-along,” where our main stars mostly sit back and let a collage of other musicians and actors do a lively and non-competitive version of those “sing-off” scenes from the Pitch Perfect movies. I’m nowhere near knowledgeable enough about the lavish and often visually dynamic European singing competition to have recognized the likes of Bilal Hassani, John Lundvik, Jamala, Alexander Rybak, Netta Barzilai and Conchita Wurst. But the scene is a joyous celebration and a chance for actual past winners to hog the spotlight for a few minutes.
That glorified celebration shines through the entire picture, as it’s another case of Will Ferrell taking a piece of pop culture he enjoys (Lifetime movies, Spanish soap operas, etc.) and filtering it through a comic lens that nonetheless lets you appreciate and celebrate the thing being spoofed. Yes, it’s a comedy set during an annual Eurovision contest, but it’s not making fun of the competition or its participants. It’s that clear affection, best personified by the above-noted sing-along scene, that makes Eurovision more than just a glorified vanity project. It makes the long, somewhat undisciplined comedy Ferrell’s most genuinely sweet starring vehicle since, yeah, Semi-Pro (which is available to rent for $4 or $13 for the unrated version, natch).
Many of Ferrell’s past comic vehicles have been hard(er)-edged and satirical looks at modern masculinity. The core thesis shared by Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys, The Campaign and both Daddy’s Home pictures is how society has been undone by an aggressively cartoonish forms of masculinity becoming the defining example of correct manhood. Like a lot of seemingly progressive and implicitly political pop cultural from the last 20 years, the films play less enjoyable when we know that many of their fans didn’t get it or didn’t care. We now have an entire nation in peril because too many people think wearing a face mask to protect against a lethal virus doesn’t fit into their preferred view of masculinity.
As such, The Story of Fire Saga is a comparative breath of fresh air, both for moviegoers and presumably for Ferrell himself. It’s a relatively upbeat and optimistic musical extravaganza, one that features another terrific comic turn from Rachel McAdams, offers a gif-friendly supporting role for Dan Stevens and takes the time to explicitly de-villainize both would-be romantic rivals (Stevens and Melissanthi Mahut). It is perhaps the kind of movie that could have busted through even in today’s cutthroat theatrical marketplace. Like The Greatest Showman, it’s a by-the-numbers, feel-good, “triumph of the underdog” musical with some terrific original songs that will likely improve upon repeat viewings, which is good news for Netflix (the movie is already number one in their current top-ten list).
Considering Irresistible wasn’t exactly a new comedy classic, I’m the only one who loved My Spy, Disney+
The question is whether Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga would have broken out in a conventional theatrical release. This is obviously speculative, but it’s not hard to argue that the film, with a big heart, some earned laughs, catchy songs and buzzy turns from McAdams and Stevens (plus winning extended cameos from Pierce Brosnan and Demi Lovato) might leg out like (relatively speaking) La La Land, Mamma Mia, Greatest Showman and Hairspray. Because, even accounting for Cats, the live-action musical remains one of the more bankable sub-genres alongside superhero movies and high-concept horror. Oh, and between Shanghai Knights (one of the greatest movies ever made and no, I’m not kidding) and Eurovision, David Dobkins clearly has a fondness for King Ralph.