Eurovision Song Contest Can't Decide What it Wants to Be
Netflix’s promotional materials for Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, the latest addition to their original film slate, included a 90 second music video for the titular band’s Scandinavian-themed single “Volcano Man,” which featured stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams prancing around a snowy landscape in silver makeup and elaborate costumes, singing about “a timeless hero” in the “highland fjords.” It’s a short but inspired bit of comedy, coming close to striking the balance between genre send-up and unironic earworm the defines the best parodies of the music industry, including two high-water marks this century that share Eurovision’s naming convention (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping). But alas, the “Volcano Man” video appears within the first five minutes of the film, and nothing in the next two hours comes particularly close to matching that comedic energy.
The trouble with Eurovision Song Contest is that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It has the trappings of a comedy in the vein of Walk Hard or Popstar, but whereas those two films are riffing off of very particular genre tropes, Eurovision is built on the framework of a much more generic archetype. The path taken by Lars Erickssong (Ferrell) and Sigrit Ericksdottir (McAdams) as they attempt to win the real-life international music competition of the title is filled with all the pitfalls you might expect — disapproving parents who eventually come around, romantic and competitive rivals who eventually can’t help but admire the heroes, falling-outs that eventually lead to triumphant reunions — but hardly any of it is presented with much of a comedic or satirical bite.
Working from a script by Ferrell and Andrew Steele (whose previous work includes Ferrell-starring parodies Casa de mi Padre and A Deadly Adoption), the film attempts to thread the needle between show biz comedy and heartwarming underdog story, but doesn’t quite hit the mark on either. There are a few running gags that hint at the potential for something a little weirder and more interesting (think unhelpful ghosts and Icelandic elves), but those bits are few and far between, with most of attempts at humor stemming from Ferrell and McAdam’s accent work and intentional mispronunciation of English words, a tired trope that underserves the talents of two incredibly funny actors.
The more sincere aspects of the film fare somewhat better — McAdams is the heart of Eurovision, achieving the nuanced balance between comedy and earnestness that the endeavor as a whole cannot, and Dan Stevens remains compulsively watchable, this time as the competition’s flashy Russian entrant; despite some late-in-the-game character development that feels questionably undercooked, Stevens gives a suitably quirky performance in a film that seems like it could have done with more of them. But where the movie seems to struggle most is in defining its relationship to Eurovision itself: the event is ripe for parody given its tendencies to provide a platform for some of the strangest musical acts various countries have to offer, but outside the often disastrous performances by Fire Saga, the film seems entirely content to portray the competition as a slightly more silly American Idol instead of digging into the heightened comedic potential.
Ultimately the biggest disappointment is that the musical performances are mostly played straight and relegated to the sidelines in favor of relationship drama between the Fire Saga duo: not only does this make the film drag — especially when you consider the bloated runtime — but it leaves you wondering what could have been had the film’s inspiration served as more of a backbone as opposed to mere window dressing.