Who wouldn’t want to shake off the pandemic blues with a hilariously, unapologetically stupid Will Ferrell farce? Expectations were high for Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, a stupidly long title in which Ferrell plays the none-too-bright Lars Erickssong, an Icelandic pop singer whose life dream is to leave the fishing village of Húsavík and win the Eurovision song contest. For those who think only Hollywood could invent an annual event of such overproduced, unprocessed cheese, think again. As most probably realize: The Eurovision Song Contest, created by the European Broadcasting Union, is for real, giving competitors from more than 40 countries the chance to compete with an original song in front of a live audience of 20,000 and a global TV viewership estimated at 200 million. Previous winners include ABBA, Lulu, and Celine Dion. The contest has been held in different host cities every year since 1956, until COVID-19 put a stop to the 2020 edition in Rotterdam. Never fear. Will Ferrell, a major fan, comes to the rescue with a movie that reflects his love for all things Eurovision.
And that’s the problem. As producer, co-writer, and star, Ferrell is too sweet on the show to camp it up with the nonstop low-comic lunacy it requires. Abetted by his Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin, Ferrell allows the film to indulge a sentimental streak and spill over the two-hour mark until repetition obliterates the kitschy fun. Here’s some good news: Until the movie sags beyond saving at midpoint, Eurovision is at least mildly diverting. A Nordic Ferrell — that wig, those boots, that accent — is every inch the dejected manchild as Lars hands out parking tickets in his tiny town and lives under the shadow of being the son of the hottest fisherman in Húsavík, embodied by the forever James Bond Pierce Brosnan.
It’s only onstage in a local club that songwriter Lars comes alive as part of Fire Saga, the singing duo completed by Rachel McAdams as Sigrit Ericksdottir. As the shy girl who’s loved the oblivious Lars since childhood, McAdams — a Wedding Crashers castmate — gives the film its quiet center. Except when Sigrit sings, with a vocal boost from Swedish pop star Molly Sandén, then she’s killer. Lars and Sigrit are eager to show off their original material, but the locals only want endless choruses of “Jaja Ding Dong,” a catchy ditty that captures the blissful stupidity of Eurovision at its stupid best.
For the rest, there’s plot — yards and yards of it — as Lars and Sigrit enter the Icelandic finals they have no chance of winning since Katiana, blasted out by two-time Grammy nominee Demi Lovato, is a lock. It takes a Zoolander-type explosion (this time on a party boat) to eliminate the other contestants and clear the way for Fire Saga. Local banker Victor Karlosson (Mikael Persbrandt) is horrified that anyone from Iceland would win Eurovision since hosting the next year’s competition, as is the custom, would bankrupt his country. Got that? It hardly matters, since the fun comes in watching Lars stage the big number, “Double Trouble,” with wind machines, a hamster wheel, and so much stage business that Sigrit nearly gets strangled by her own scarf. The worst idea? When the filmmakers decided that we had to endure numbers from another 10 other acts to show the scope of the competition. That’s when the helium from Ferrell and McAdams that kept the movie airborne, slowly dribbles away.
There’s one exception: Minds will be blown at just the sight of Dan Stevens, the pinnacle of British reserve on Downton Abbey, going the other way with a vengeance as the flamboyant Russian contender Alexander Lemtov. With his George Michael wig, exaggerated dance moves, tight pants, and a low-cut shirt, Lemtov is a one-man, three-ring sex circus. And Stevens plays him so far beyond the hilt that he reaches heights of vanity hitherto unexplored — even at the actual Eurovision. In Lemtov’s signature number, “Lion of Love,” the preening Russian bellows in a rock-opera voice (Erik Mjönes did the dubbing), with nearly naked chorus boys as his backup, and unleashes an aria of self worship that leaves the audience in thrall. It’s impossible for Ferrell and McAdams to top Stevens for campy pyrotechnics, so they’re left to hard-sell a Lars-Sigrit romance that’s too tepid to strike a jaja ding dong. While the story of Fire Saga goes nowhere, the Eurovision Song Contest will surely live to see another tacky day. Maybe you had to be there.