We’ve seen this show before. Take Will Ferrell, plug him into a tired premise, and let him riff the entire runtime. It’s worked on occasion, but over the years, our expectations are dwindling. He hasn’t starred in a really good comedy in over a decade, since 2008’s Step Brothers. You can find glimpses here and there (Anchorman 2, Get Hard), but they’re far from peak Ferrell. 2020’s Netflix original Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is no different. This time, the formula Ferrell is dropped into is that of a music competition. Yet, the story is locked in a little better than his more recent endeavors. Plus, there’s Rachel McAdams.
McAdams, who began her own career with some pretty big comedies (Mean Girls, Wedding Crashers), has only recently begun to rediscover those roots, and not a moment too soon. She’s a natural. When she feeds off of Ferrell’s ad-libs, it works, and better yet, she doesn’t try to outshine her legendary costar. Instead, the pair builds a very complimentary symbiosis.
Ferrell and McAdams play Lars and Sigrit, two childhood friends (who are “most likely not siblings”) from a small Icelandic town called Húsavík. They’ve formed a music group called Fire Saga, and dream of someday winning the international Eurovision Song Contest. They write and sing their own music, which is actually really good, and Sigrit, especially, is a fantastic singer (with some vocal help from Swedish singer Molly Sandén).
In Húsavík, however, the locals simply don’t share their love of good music, at least the type played by the duo, including Lars’ long-suffering father (Pierce Brosnan). They think Lars and Sigrit’s duo has no talent and will never make it to the big time.
It’s unclear throughout the movie whether or not the disregard for Fire Saga’s talent is due to people’s lack of taste, or if we’re supposed to think they’re actually bad. Well, they’re not, and the repeated disdain for them becomes a running joke, one that frankly doesn’t quite make any sense.
Sigrit is in love with Lars, however Lars doesn’t want to act upon his own feelings in order to not “Fleetwood Mac” their band. In typical Will Ferrell fashion, his character is a naive oaf. But Lars is one of the most competent characters Ferrell has played in one of his comedies and his dedication to the character becomes
In the 60+ year history of Eurovision, Iceland has never won the competition. Each year, the country selects 12 finalists to participate in a preliminary round to determine who will represent the Nordic nation in the Eurovision Song Contest. This year, the committee only had 11 finalists, so they picked a twelfth at random from the rejected submissions. Guess who got picked. Yup, Fire Saga.
It’s clear that super talented Katiana Lindsdóttir (Demi Lovato) is destined to win, but destiny gets blocked when, after a disastrous performance and surefire early exit, Lars and Sigrit manage to “win” the contest by default after all the other performers are killed when their party boat explodes on the water.
Eurovision is the type of comedy that finds enjoyment out of mean spiritedness. Everything’s a joke, even when a boat filled with innocent victims gets blown to bits, we’re supposed to laugh at Lars for celebrating. This flippancy complicates things later on when we’re supposed to feel for our characters. Why should we be invested in the stakes regarding winning a music contest, but laugh off the fact that so many lives were lost in a boat explosion? Nonetheless, the shallow tone eventually subsides when the story grabs hold, and by the end we really do care about these characters.
Ferrell is a co-writer (with Andrew Steele) on the script and it shows. The plot details have his brand of randomness, from a confused ghost played by Demi Lovato to setting the film in Iceland to begin with. But with Ferrell’s comedic sensibilities at play there really aren’t many truly funny situations. Instead, the comedy almost always comes from the actual jokes and how these characters interact with each other. As much as we remember the comedian for his one-liners, it’s when he’s dealing with both aspects that he really shines, and here, we only see one of them.
However, Eurovision has its moments of genuine hilarity, but in a more unexpected turn, the film actually makes us feel something big. Lars and Sigrit are competing for their country and their town, neither of which have their backs. From the get go, everybody heckles them and curses them with failure. Yet, the duo shows an admirable spirit despite their critics, and they’re given the chance to really do something special.
If you’re a dreamer, most people you come across aren’t going to understand those dreams. The hardest part is believing you can succeed regardless of outside noise. It helps to have a Sigrit by your side. Even when Lars is cluelessly selfish, acting for his own wants and desires, Sigrit perseveres out of her love for him. Mirroring Fire Saga’s dynamic with their own country and hometown, she, too, swears by Lars despite going unappreciated at times, but her loyalty is rewarded in the end.
The film doesn’t quite make it known enough to Americans that Eurovision Song Contest is an actual competition that’s a pretty big deal outside the United States, or dive more into of the history behind the event that launched the careers of Celine Dion, Olivia Newton-John, or Enya (ABBA is the only group discussed). Nor does it delve into the dirtier politics of these music competitions that would surely disenchant many aspiring creatives, but it does engage in its own bit of melodrama behind the scenes. There are antagonists who operate under their own agendas, and much of the plot is spent on meaningless love triangles perpetuated by muddled motives.
David Dobkin tries his hardest with the material he’s given, and surprisingly keeps Ferrell’s leash relatively short. Taking big chunks of the movie and filling them with musical montages doesn’t necessarily help any comedic flow, but these don’t necessarily take away any entertainment value. The songs are almost always toe-tapping and I wish some were longer than the snippets included here. Instead, Dobkin tries to show us songs from a large number of acts rather than showing longer clips from a smaller, quality sample size.
On top of the brilliant songs performed by Fire Saga, including their finale, the film’s musical score by Icelandic composer Atli Örvarsson is unexpectedly magnificent. He’s able to heighten our emotions even when we don’t feel like this movie is worthy of them, taking this mediocre, albeit ambitious, project and raising it up about ten notches. Also, there are also some smooth instrumental integrations of songs by Icelandic band Sigur Rós into the background.
There’s enough to like about Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga to make it worth a watch. The pacing is all over the place and the runtime is about 20 minutes too long, but there are some welcome surprises thrown in here and there. Ferrell and McAdams share great chemistry and the music throughout is actually pretty great. It isn’t nearly the feel good movie about fulfilling your dreams it seems to think it is, but still hits many of the right marks. Something tells me this one will grow on people over time.