2020 has been a year in which not a lot has made much sense, based on a variety of events that have caused our collective species to come to a grinding halt and reconsider even the most essential components of our existence – yet, in a time when nothing is what it seems, one film dared to enter into our lives and, even for just a moment, made everything seem like it would be alright, particularly considering it was centred around the epitome of international unity and companionship: the Eurovision Song Contest. In speaking to a friend a few months ago, we remarked on how much this pandemic was going to impact the things we love – awards shows would be cancelled, as would events such as the Olympic Games and a variety of live concerts and specials that have become annual staples of the collective culture. However, none of them hurt quite as much as the postponement of the Eurovision Song Contest, one of the most cultural institutions that has been an important part of the lives of many people around the world, especially those who have grown up with the pure, unhinged insanity that a variety of European countries bring each and every year. Having said this, the arrival of Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga could not have come at a better time – not only does this momentarily fill the void we all felt when we turned on our televisions back in May and seen anything about the world’s greatest singing competition, but it functions as one of the funniest films of the year, a deliriously entertaining work of satire that has overtures of some of the great comic masterpieces of the past, and while it does certainly have its problems, it is (for the most part) an incredibly funny film that is as lovable as it is outrageously entertaining.
From the outset, it’s important to note that Eurovision Song Contest is not in any way a perfect film – in fact, the bewilderment many critics and casual viewers have expressed about this film aren’t only understandable, they’re extremely valid. Ultimately, this film was targetted at those who have become ensconced in the culture of the titular contest, rather than attempting to be a work that bridges the gap between fans and those cynical to the abstract, high-camp charms of the long-running institution. I’m a proponent of niche subjects being made into works that are accessible for the unconverted, but when it comes to this particular film, there isn’t much of a middle-ground that would make this universally resonant. It’s impossible to tone down the camp without losing the spark of insanity that compels the contest, which is normally built on its insatiable disorderliness, nor is it possible to explain exactly why this is about something that means so much to a great many people. However, it’s by no means a work that is entirely polarizing – Ferrell and the rest of his collaborators do very well in capturing the spirit of Eurovision, and manage to put together a brilliant portrayal of it that may not be precise in capturing the pure madness of it all, but is still relatively successful in being an accessible overview of this very special event. Definitely aimed at those of us who were already a part of the target group (as evident by the fact that the film is made in collaboration with, rather than at the expense of, the European Broadcasting Union, who are responsible for organizing the contest), the film may bewilder those who haven’t been witness to the sheer chaos of Eurovision – but in the case that there are those who have their interest piqued by what they see here, this film is a great way to get a saddle on the contest, and understand exactly what it is that makes this such a special, beloved event.
Eurovision Song Contest is not a film without its issues – and watching it, you could see how its struggling to condense what is essentially a year-long event (eclipsing the majority of other international events that are just as beloved) into two hours of coherent narrative, especially because the spirit of Eurovision has always been against the idea of lucidity, with the collective agreement being that each contestant will go their own direction, and we’ll just passively accept it because that’s what makes Eurovision special. In this regard, the film is entirely aware of its shortcomings based on the challenges of making a film about an event – but instead of attempting to rectify the flaws, it instead embraces them, and turns them into the exact kind of beautifully chaotic jumble of ideas that don’t necessarily find a home in more traditional comedy films, but are repurposed to form the foundation of what makes Eurovision Song Contest such an incredibly compelling comedy. Nothing can ever truly encompass every inch of delirious madness that is Eurovision, but this film does come dangerously close, which is worth celebrating all on its own, because while it may not always be as tightly-plotted or executed with the precision as many more successful comedies, it has a certain charm about it that comes from the dedication to making something that isn’t necessarily supposed to be good, but at the very least entertaining. It certainly does achieve this, and in the process demonstrates itself to be quite successful, more so than had it taken a more traditional approach. It does hit the familiar beats and does seem to be operating from the same formulaic structure of similar films, but it overcomes them with certain aspects that are far more important to a film like this succeeding – and for that, it’s not difficult to see why this film struck a chord with audiences.
When it comes to comedy, Will Ferrell has become firmly ingrained in the culture, and even if you don’t subscribe to his brand of humour, it’s undeniable that he’s established himself as one of the most indelible forces in modern comedy. He’s been capable of some brilliance in the past, but he’s undeniably faltered in recent years, with very few of his projects hitting the target they were aiming for, making it seem like he had somehow lost the fundamental qualities that made him so beloved (as well as incredibly divisive, based on his brand of humour). However, Eurovision Song Contest is the definition of a return to form, the Ferrell finally delivering a comedic performance that was both deserving of his talents and our time. The film is his brainchild, so it’s unsurprising that much of what we see here was motivated by his passionate attempt to bring Eurovision to a much wider audience, extending it across the globe in a way that would allow those who weren’t aware of it could finally have a brief glimpse into this monumental annual event. However, even based on his performance on its own, Ferrell is wonderful – he is just as broad and eccentric here as he normally is, with the role not being anything we haven’t seen from him before. He has certainly made a career playing these larger-than-life characters, with the only factors the differentiate them being their accents and how far Ferrell is willing to go to make audiences appreciate them. His performance is Lars is definitely one of his better achievements in terms of outright comedy (as he has ventured into more dramatic material from time to time), and it allows him to play on his offbeat charms that don’t always work when the material isn’t there for him. However, Lars isn’t necessarily the character that will convert those who never found the appeal in the actor – many of the same tics are there, and he continues to have the troubling tendency to play his characters too broadly. However, this isn’t too much of a distraction here, as Eurovision Song Contest is the first time in years where Ferrell truly seems to have his heart in what he’s doing, which makes all the difference when considering precisely why this is one of his better performances. Who knew allowing him to run rampage around Europe would result in such fun?
However, as tempting as it is to throw around the bold claim that “Will Ferrell is finally funny again”, Eurovision Song Contest ultimately belongs to Rachel McAdams, who continues to prove herself to be an actress who is capable of stealing absolutely every project she appears in. She has consistently been the best part of many films over the course of her career, which is most prominent in many recent films, where she’s elevated middling material to the point of near-brilliance, based entirely on her willingness to take her characters anywhere they need to go, even if it doesn’t appear to be all that promising on paper. McAdams is a talented actress precisely because she’s consistently underestimated as a performer – she’s given roles that don’t seem to be anything special, and when filtering them through her immense talents (as well as the fact that she is almost chameleonic in how she approaches many of these roles), she delivers scene-stealing work. Eurovision Song Contest truly cares about her character already, so for her to take it another level entirely is beyond impressive, and a major reason why she’s one of the most tragically underpraised actresses working today. The supporting cast of the film is great, but its Eurovision Song Contest that comes closest to matching McAdams, sharing the same quality of consistently being overlooked as a great character actor, when the quality of his performances speak for themselves. The character of Alexander Lemtov is designed to be a scene-stealing role, and Stevens delivers on all fronts, making for an absolutely delightful villain who is wonderfully evil, but not to the point where he becomes unbearable. We love to hate him, and Stevens comes dangerously close to making the film his own – there’s enough material condensed into this character to warrant a spin-off, and considering how impressive his performance was, I do hope they consider it.
Ultimately, Eurovision Song Contest is always going to be most appreciated by those who understand the appeal of the contest as a whole – but this doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed by everyone, and I genuinely believe this is one of the rare comedy films that doesn’t limit itself to one particular faction of the prospective audience. It’s a rewarding piece of nostalgia for fans of Eurovision (especially when it comes to the small references that require some working knowledge of the contest, such as the sheer delight of the big number in the middle of the film, where some of the recent Eurovision contestants are woven into this film), but loving the contest itself isn’t essential for enjoying this film. Just witnessing the ambitious absurdity of this film is more than enough to qualify it as a very special achievement, one that may certainly be slightly derivate and absolutely pales in comparison to the actual event, but is sufficient in terms of being a meaningful portrayal of one of the twentieth-century’s most cherished international events. Ferrell and his motley crew of creatives (including director David Dobkin, who is shepherding his first decent film in over a decade) go to extraordinary lengths to give nuance to this film – whether it be in the memorable characters, or the musical performances (the way this film manages to create spot-on parodies of real Eurovision songs and their eccentric contestants is incredible), Eurovision Song Contest is a film that means well – and sometimes, that’s all that matters when it comes to something like this. There’s an underlying chaotic brilliance to this film that we simply don’t see all that often, and while it’s certainly a film that has its flaws, that’s to be expected from a film focused on the cultural embodiment of high-camp, with Eurovision Song Contest being an absolute blast in every conceivable way, and an earnest work of comedy that is as bizarre as it is thoroughly entertaining, and absolutely just a bundle of unbridled joy from beginning to end.