Dir. David Dobnik. Starring Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, Dan Stevens
I realize this is a recent release, so I’ll drop the spoilers tag, but also…come on.
No one in Lars (Ferrell) and Sigrit’s (McAdams) hometown wants to hear their Eurovision song at any point in the movie. They’ll be at the bar performing, and Lars will ask, So do you want to hear our Eurovision song? and everyone else will shout some combination of “No!” or “Boo!” or, my favorite, “‘Ja Ja Ding Dong!'” That is their most popular song in Iceland, and after seeing this movie and hearing all of their numbers…man, I understand why. I’m hard pressed to remember the last time I was listening to something and knew that it would just slip into my brain in most of my remaining quiet moments. It’s maybe the catchiest thirty seconds of music I have come across since the fateful night I found out about “Moskau.” (By 1979 fourth-place group Dschinghis Khan, no less. I smell a pattern.) On one hand, this is basically just a novelty song about how good sex is, and on the other hand, it is this gloriously bouncy little ditty with an oompah bass line where everyone in the bar shouts “DING DONG” after Fire Saga (which at home has a pre-teen drummer and an old-timey prospector playing accordion) sings that part. At one point Lars asks a guy when he’s going to get over “Ja Ja Ding Dong,” and the response is an almost tantrum level “I will never be over ‘Ja Ja Ding Dong!'” Same, my dude. Same.
“Ja Ja Ding Dong” is the nut of what works about Eurovision Song Contest, because this is a movie where almost everyone is alarmingly straight-faced in the end, Cool Runnings for people who put on crazy costumes. The villain of the movie is kind of a nonentity, which is fine with me, but he’s the villain because he represents Icelandic business and makes a valid point: if Iceland actually won Eurovision, they would be forced to host the next year, and that would be an unbearable strain on the national finances. It would be more valid, as one of the country’s Eurovision sponsors points out, if Iceland’s economy hadn’t tanked because of the terrible decisions spearheaded by Iceland’s business leaders before the 2008 recession. Just like “Ja Ja Ding Dong,” that line doesn’t need to work that well, but that happens to be a pretty accurate description of what actually happened to Iceland’s economy at that time, and why it happened. For me it was the most surprising moment in the movie because it’s a sign of some actual seriousness in the making. Ditto the reveal that Alexander (Stevens), the Russian contestant at Eurovision who has been trying to woo Sigrit, is gay. (It’s not a reveal.) Sigrit asks him, and Alexander responds that there are no homosexuals in Russia; it’s funny, but it’s also a nod to Putin’s crackdown on LGBT rights in that country that is not funny at all.
Transitioning elegantly back to “Ja Ja Ding Dong,” at the very least that is an elite novelty song, and like the rest of the songs that Fire Saga and their fellow contestants do, it’s produced well and sounds like real music. Color me as surprised as Graham Norton is in this movie when Lars and Sigrit get into their performance of “Double Trouble” at the Eurovisions semis and it’s…kind of actually good? I’ve seen Pitch Perfect and enough episodes of Glee to be a little immune to sequences like the Song-A-Long, but also I’m not. The fact that there are all number of actual Eurovision contestants performing in this number which mashes up Cher and ABBA and Madonna in a series of sing-right-into-the-camera shots makes this movie a labor of love, and that sequence is so genuinely exciting that even if you hadn’t spent multiple nights during your college years bingeing Wikipedia articles about Eurovision and watching some of the historical performances I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t get a little swept up in it. Bright colors! Swirling cameras! People singing Cher! No, there doesn’t have to be a sequence in there that I’m sure made the movie much more expensive and difficult to plan for and all, but also I’m beaming just thinking about it.
We’re really not supposed to make fun of the people in the movie no matter how ludicrous they are, which is not only a good summary of real-life Eurovision, but a refreshing perspective on this kind of comedy. I don’t think Fire Saga is all that different from a movie like Sing Street, down to the ways that both movies talk about where good music comes from and going after a dream in an insane way; say what you will about Lars and Sigrit, but they don’t try to take the world’s smallest boat across the Irish Sea in the hopes of selling a demo tape. The difference is that one of those movies is trying to warm your heart and the other is trying to make you guffaw a few times, but the crux of them is the same. This is not a Walk Hard kind of story where we’re making fun of the very idea of the music biopic (“You don’t want this!”), but a wholehearted story about two people who want to do the right thing for each other in the context of Eurovision. The story just happens to rely pretty heavily on elves and ghosts and scarves that are much too long. The people I think the movie makes fun of hardest are the American college students in Edinburgh (wearing Arizona State gear, because these people know what they’re doing). But after Lars tells them where a Starbucks is, because Americans love Starbucks, Lars’ reflection in a fountain asks him if he’s helping them? Lars is a little confused himself. This is such a gentle movie that I honestly wonder if the only thing making it PG-13 is a bit where Alexander shows Lars and Sigrit some presumably Ancient Greek statues that have very prominent penises and resemblances to Alexander.
The gentleness in the movie primarily stems from Rachel McAdams, who has Hollywood’s best smile and a knack for playing along with man-child material in such a way that it feels sweet rather than grating. (Yes, I’m talking about About Time.) She spends much of the movie dressed like a precocious eight-year-old, but is nevertheless the movie’s most composed adult. She’s been in enough stuff by now for us to know that she is game for just about anything, but the ridiculous stuff that they do with Sigrit’s hair and costumes is as much a running gag as anything else in the picture, and now I’ve heard McAdams say the endlessly applicable line “The elves have gone too far!” Lars is the one in Fire Saga who has the dream and the vision (which means he’s the one who gets them suspended above the stage in Iceland, almost kills Sigrit with a human-sized hamster wheel, etc.), but Sigrit is the one with the talent. Molly Sandén’s voice is the one we hear, and she’s certainly got the goods in a very late ’10s way. It’s not hard to imagine a someone more internationally famous filling in for Sandén on something like “Double Trouble,” which is a credit to her. After nearly getting her neck broken by Lars, Sigrit parts ways with him. He is too embarrassed by what happened on stage, and too crestfallen that his dream of winning Eurovision is dead, to go back to the green room where the performers wait to get their scores. Sigrit insists that it’s their job as representatives of their country that they put the best face on it that they can, and thus she’s in the room where Iceland sneaks into the final based, presumably, on their pluck. It is the thing that turns Lars’ dad, Erick (Pierce Brosnan) around about his son, who he’s been embarrassed about for decades now; you didn’t give up, he tells Lars, and you finished the performance. It’s what sends Lars back to Eurovision after a brief return to Iceland, but it’s also proof that Sigrit is much the nobler of the two, and for a movie where there is no real villain who isn’t some shady hedge fund manager, the movie needs the conflict to come between two decent people where one of them stays the course of that decency. McAdams more than delivers in that spot, no matter how funky her accent is.
If there’s something which is genuinely holding back Eurovision Song Contest, it’s the final song, “Husavik,” which is meant to work exactly as you would expect that song to work. Lars and Sigrit are making up because he’s stopped being such a nimrod. Iceland is going to have an unforgettable moment at Eurovision without any death-defying stunts, even if it means they’re disqualified for playing a different song. Lars has finally found out that Sigrit is not his half-sister, which means things are wide open for them romantically again. (The movie’s other great running gag is about people asking if Lars and Sigrit are brother and sister; she always says no, and he always says probably not. His dad is apparently the father of a great many people their age in Husavik, because he looks like Pierce Brosnan and the rest of the men don’t. Pierce Brosnan is sixty-seven years old and is a gazillion times more handsome than he was when he was playing James Bond. There’s a lot about this movie that’s made me reel a little, but how hot antediluvian Brosnan is in movie where they emphatically don’t let him sing is…something.) As the thing that finishes out the plot, it’s a sadly limp ending for a movie that has spent the last 110 minutes in a state of bedazzling silliness, more Celtic Woman than Dschinghis Khan.