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Non-Review Review: Eurovision Song Contest – The Story of Fire Saga

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a limp misfire.

There’s no doubt that the film comes from a place of affection and sincerity, reportedly inspired by writer and star Will Ferrell’s delight on discovering the camp weirdness of the Eurovision Song Contest. Indeed, The Story of Fire Saga has clearly been produced with the enthusiastic participation of the contest itself; the film uses a lot of branding associated with the event, features cameos from commentators like Graham Norton, and even ropes in a couple of past participants for its most endearing tribute to the surreality of the competition.

Marching on.

However, whether because it constrained by the official branding or simply by the limitations of Ferrell as an outsider looking in, The Story of Fire Saga doesn’t work. On a basic level of comedy mechanics, there are not enough jokes to sustain the indulgent two-hour runtime. On a more fundamental level, The Story of Fire Saga often fails to grasp what makes the Eurovision Song Contest such a beloved cultural institution. There’s a sense in which The Story of Fire Saga could be about almost anything else, and would be functionally the same movie.

This is a disappointment, particularly given that The Story of Fire Saga is being released in a year without the Eurovision.

A pretty weak ‘Vision.

The basic narrative structure of The Story of Fire Saga feels like it could have been lifted from just about about any modern comedy from Ferrell or his contemporaries. Indeed, the biggest surprise in the film is that Ferrell’s co-star is Rachel McAdams rather than Jon C. Reilly. This is a story about Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir, two adult dreamers who seem to be waiting for their lives to happen to them. Both are stuck in a state of arrested development – much is made of the fact that Sigrit did not talk until quite late in childhood.

Lars dreams of winning the Eurovision. Naturally, those around him disparage those dreams. His own father, Erick, is openly contemptuous of his son’s aspirations. “You’re a middle aged man, Lars, it’s time to start living your life,” Erick insists. More brutally, he explains, “You have wasted your whole life on this one stupid idea of the Eurovision Song Contest. Now you’re a grown man with a wife, without a child. Your life is a joke.” Like so many American comedy protagonists (including the one recently featured in The King of Staten Island), Lars is an overgrown child.

A familiar tune.

The set-up is so familiar that it verges on schtick. This is the kind of character that Ferrell has gravitated towards, and has calcified as he has gotten older, existing on a spectrum with the lead roles in Holmes and Watson and Stepbrothers. To be fair, Lars comes across as a little more sympathetic than either of those two examples, with the film a little more sympathetic to his refusal to grow up. It’s debatable whether this makes the movie better or worse. It was, after all, possible to read Stepbrothers as a commentary on this cliché rather than a straight-up example of it.

Lars and Sigrid are both stuck in their ruts. Lars is stuck waiting to win the Eurovision and Sigrid is stuck waiting for Lars to grow up. There’s nothing especially new or interesting here, and the roles are rather thankless for Ferrell and McAdams. The problem is compounded by the film’s length, which means that characters are constantly repeating the basic dynamics of the film, even though they are transparent to anybody who has watched a major studio comedy in the past twenty years. “Lars is weird,” helpfully exposits a cop at one point. “The whole town thinks so.”

Holding it all together.

The movie’s length is punishing, largely because it seems like so much of the film is given over to characters explaining what the audience just saw and explicitly instructing the audience in how to react to events. When one performance goes relatively well for Lars and Sigrid, Graham Norton states, “Not as bad as we thought.” As Lars and Sigrid win over the audience, Norton explains, “This is quite wonderful.” As Sigrid’s scarf comes closer and closer to a mechanic spinning wheel, Norton gasps, “The scarf!” The audience can see all this for themselves. The film doesn’t need to state it.

However, the film keeps heaping on, repeatedly explaining the narrative and dramatic stakes of things that happened moments earlier and which should be very clear. “They were awful,” explains the Icelandic announcer during the votes tally. “Next year will be better. We’ll send someone else. Anyone.” It’s weird, because it’s not a joke, but it’s also not anything that the audience should need to be told. The film should be able to communicate this clearly. Even if it can’t the audience has seen enough of these films to know how they work.

Tune town.

There’s something exhausting in this framework, as if Will Ferrell has found himself trapped in a grim diminishing returns variant of that Rich Hall “Tom Cruise Movie” sketch. The plot is familiar, with a little bit of mad libs through in on top. The character arc is the same, but The Story of Fire Saga just swaps in a new location (Iceland) and a new dream (Eurovision) to the established template. To be fair, it might be possible to do something with that template, but it gets The Story of Fire Saga off to a troubling start.

More to the point, it repeatedly feels like this is the wrong format for the film. The Story of Fire Saga is very consciously aimed at Americans with no real knowledge or awareness of the institution that is the Eurovision Song Contest. That’s perfectly fine, as one of the great things about cinema is its power to bring new worlds to the audience. However, The Story of Fire Saga suffers greatly from trying to impose the structure and rhythms of a generic American studio comedy atop something that would probably work better as a mockumentary.

East of Edin(burgh).

The Story of Fire Saga feels like it would work relatively well as an episode of Documentary Now! or as a Christopher Guest film like This is Spinal Tap or Best in Show. Indeed, the film itself seems to acknowledge as much, introducing various characters and institutions with helpful captions to contextualise them. That level of exposition might work better within a mockumentary framework, which would also work well to extend The Story of Fire Saga beyond Lars and Sigrid.

Even outside of Lars and Sigrid, The Story of Fire Saga runs into problems. Some of these problems are quite specific, most notably that the plot of the film also borrows quite heavily from the plot of the classic Father Ted episode A Song for Europe, a comparison that does not flatter The Story of Fire Saga. In initial pitches, Viktor, the representative of “the Central Bank of Iceland” complains about the possibility of winning the competition. “I’m afraid the cost of hosting will bankrupt the whole country.” It’s no surprise how the movie develops from there.

Contest of champions.

Again, there are interesting shades of a good idea there, particularly in the modern context. The Story of Fire Saga is set in Iceland, a country ravaged by the financial crisis. In the current political and economic climate, it’s interesting to position the bankers as villains in this story, but The Story of Fire Saga never delves into that implication. There’s really just a single allusion to the scars that the recession left on the country, when Anna responds to Viktor’s concerns, “The brilliant financial men of this country nearly ruined us ten years ago.”

Of course, The Story of Fire Saga is not especially interested in its Icelandic setting or context. (The closest the movie comes is making jokes about elves.) The film often feels like an excuse for tired jokes about broken English – characters talk about “sex play” or “club dancing”, for example. There are moments that come close to self-awareness, such as Ferrell playing an Icelander complaining about garish Americans in Europe or Dan Stevens playing a Russian remarking that “everybody hates U.K.”, but these more often seem like cheap shots than self-aware moments.

A Piercing observation.

Still, there are a few moments when The Story of Fire Saga suggests the potential of an idea like this. Attending their first Eurovision party, Lars and Sigrid get sucked up in a “song-along”, in which a variety of contestants (real and fictional) sing a medley of Believe by Cher, Ray of Light by Madonna, Waterloo by Abba and I Gotta Feeling by The Black Eyed Peas. It’s very silly, very cheesy, but also slightly earnest. For those fleeting few minutes (of a two-hour film), The Story of Fire Saga seems to capture the weird spirit of Eurovision.

The film also benefits greatly from a supporting performance from Dan Stevens as Alexander Lemtov, the Russian entry in the competition. Alexander is initially presented as the inevitable foil to Lars; a blissfully unself-aware but worldly gentlemen who radiates sexual energy and seems capable of recognising Sigrid’s talents and ambitions in a way that Lars cannot. In broad strokes, its a role that is as thankless and unforgiving as Lars or Sigrid. However, the character develops in interesting ways.

Blurred lions.

Part of this is imply down to Stevens’ performance, which manages to straddle an interesting line. Most obviously, it’s that broad campy performance that traditionally dramatic actors love to give in supporting roles in comedies; Stevens did something similar in The Guest. As played by Stevens, Alexander is mostly eyebrows and smouldering. However, Stevens also layers in some interesting dramatic material beneath it all, and the film does suggest that there is something much more engaging about his character than initially meets the eye.

It’s arguably through Alexander that The Story of Fire Saga comes closest to capturing the vibe of Eurovision, but also in mounting an affectionate argument for the event as a cultural institution. It is very clear that Alexander feels much more at home in the confines of Eurovision than he does at home in Russia, and the movie seems to harbour a genuine affection for his difficulty fitting in, while still allowing him to serve as a potential antagonist. Alexander suggests a more interesting film, if The Story of Fire Saga could extend its perspective beyond Lars and Sigrid.

Is Dan Dastardly?

Ultimately, these small moments are all the more frustrating because they suggest a much more compelling and engaging film that is nestled somewhere within the safe comedic formula that designed The Story of Fire Saga. There’s a better movie somewhere within The Story of Fire Saga, waiting to get out, but it’s ultimately suffocated by a template that has been done before and much better.

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