Culture

The Iceland Cometh: Latest Ferrell Feature a Charmer

(Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga promotional poster)

Until I sat down in front of Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, I had never heard of Europe’s multinational songwriting contest. My European musical interests center around the Beatles, Stones, the British Invasion, founders like Zeppelin, Sabbath, and Purple, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and extreme Euro-Metal. Euro-Pop never blipped on my radar.

So it was a revelation to learn that multi million-sellers like ABBA and Celine Dion, and even inimitable rocker Lordi, all got career kick-starts as entrants in this glitzy competition that has been going strong since 1956.

Does this ignorance about the Eurovision Songwriting Contest render me unqualified to review the film inspired by it? No. After all, co-writer and producer of the Netflix original Will Ferrell was clueless too, until his Swedish wife acquainted him with it in 1999. Ferrell did his research, plotted his extravaganza, and the rest is streaming history.

The film provides great entertainment from start to finish, and, as Ferrell’s most abrasively endearing character Ron Burgundy might say, “If you don’t get verklempt during the grand finale of this movie, you’re a heartless bastard.”

Ferrell is one of those “shut-up-and-sing” celebrities whose leftist political leanings are anathema to conservatives (he backed Bernie Sanders before switching to Hillary in 2016), but whose film career often rises to comedic greatness in the estimation of moviegoers across the spectrum. Talladega Nights, The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is probably the foremost example. Who can forget Ferrell in character as the acclaimed NASCAR ace saying, “Are we about to get it on?” while assistant and eventual love interest Susan (Amy Adams) climbs up on the table to the strains of Journey’s “Faithfully.”

Elf cost $33 million to make, grossed over $200 million, and, propelled by Ferrell’s “Buddy,” became an instant Christmas classic. Ferrell personified magical egoism as aforementioned anchorman Burgundy, and didn’t disappoint on television in his four-episode The Office appearance as Michael Scott replacement Deangelo Vickers.

In Fire Saga, Ferrell’s Lars Erickssong shares with Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams) the lifelong dream of representing Iceland in the Eurovision contest. Sigrid is farther along than Lars in understanding that perhaps the two were meant to be more than just songwriting partners and performers. She has a prominent facial mole that even the most long shot-aspiring continental pop star would have found the resources to remove. She also fervently believes in the existence of Icelandic elves.

Hilarity ensues as by a stroke of tragic luck the duo becomes Iceland’s contestant, is flown to the site of the annual music fest in Edinburgh, Scotland, and encounters the wildly diverse talent pool that has made it to the big show.

The essential innocence and cultural naivete of Lars and Sigrid are charmingly on display as the not-quite-couple negotiates stage disasters and tumultuous emotions while the gargantuan exercise in show prep marches on.

The film, which premiered on June 26, features a pivotal role played by Dan Stevens, remembered for his star turn as Matthew Crawley on PBS series Downton Abbey.  Stevens’ Alexander Lemtov is a meteoric, ironically-closeted homosexual superstar who “Mother Russia” will never allow to be happy. Another notable casting coup comes in the form of a bearded Pierce Brosnan, fifth James Bond in the 007 oeuvre, as Lars’ disapproving father.

The Story of Fire Saga revolves, and resolves, around an age-old theme: what if happiness turns out to lie not in a grandiose dream, but right in front of our eyes, extant in our daily lives. Thankfully, our dynamic duo must journey from a small-town tavern in not-fictional Husavik to the biggest stage in Europe before they find that happiness.

It’s an entertaining ride, and the ultimate fruition of meaningful romantic attachment, together with the values of family, friends and homeland pride coalesce beautifully in the film’s climatic performance scene.

Takeaways, without spoilers: The movie soundtrack is charting in Europe, reaching #28 on the Swedish album charts.

Formulaic as it may be, with dependable descents into silliness and healthy dollops of sentimentalism, Ferrell’s (with cowriter Andrew Steele) script delivers.

On review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, professional consensus is mixed (64% fresh, out of 138 reviews) with a sampling of reviewers finding the movie overlong, and in several aspects to have missed the mark. But the audience reviews clock in at 80% fresh. This discrepancy between professional appraisal and how the film has been received by nonprofessionals willing to give an opinion tells you much of what you need to know about the relative merit and resonance of Ferrell’s latest feature film. People love it.

As Deangelo Vickers might say, “If you don’t get a little choked up during the grand finale of Eurovision Song Contest, The Story of Fire Saga, you’re a heartless bastard.”

Mark Ellis is the author of “A Death on the Horizon,” a novel of political upheaval and cultural intrigue. Follow Mark on Twitter.

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