Mel Brooks’s classics Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein work as comedies because they love the subject of their satire. The original props from James Whale’s Frankenstein or the song “Blazing Saddles” sung by Western legend Frankie Laine reveal an attention to detail possessed only by a superfan. But Brooks’s adoration of genres never kept him from making jokes about them. In fact, his love drove the jokes.
The makers of the Netflix comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga clearly love the titular competition. They love its mix of camp pageantry and naked sincerity. They love the inherent drama of oddballs from lesser-known locales chasing their dreams. They love the contest’s gaudy, in-your-face style aesthetic.
Director David Dobkin and writers Will Ferrell and Andrew Steele have created a story that meshes together everything they love about Eurovision. Ferrell plays Lars Erickssong, an Icelandic fisherman’s son who never let adversities or self-respect stop him from following his dreams. Despite the actual talent Lars and his childhood friend Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams) display, their band Fire Song has achieved no more success than singing cover songs and a particularly popular double-entendre ditty for belligerent locals. The rise of Iceland’s pop star Katiana (Demi Lovato) blocks their Eurovision dreams until all competitors are blown away, thanks to an evil businessman and/or the invisible elves to whom Sigrit prays. Once at the contest, ego and happenstance hamper Fire Song’s aspirations. To make matters worse, a wedge develops between Lars and Sigrit when they befriend the macho Russian singer Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens) and the Greek singer Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut), who gets no character traits besides “seductive” and “duplicitous sometimes maybe.”
There are plot points beyond this synopsis, but they don’t matter. Despite Dobkin’s insistence on drawing out “tension,” the story floats along from beat to beat and all conflicts soon resolve themselves.
Of course, comedies don’t need intricate plots. Developments should exist to set-up and pay-off jokes, and that happens during the first 30 mins or so of the movie. By this point, Ferrell has played the earnest weirdo character to the point of exhaustion, but even familiarity can’t hamper the indulgences of the opening number “Volcano Man.”
McAdams, however, still feels fresh and vibrant, despite having broken out as a comedy actor in Mean Girls over fifteen years ago. She throws her self into the role with selfless aplomb, overshadowing Ferrell in every scene. Her delivery of the line “The elves have gone too far,” after the accident that sends Fire Song to the contest, is as funny as anything in the best comedies.
No, the lazy plotting falters because, almost as soon as Fire Song gets to Eurovision, the movie’s love for the proceedings takes over. Nothing encapsulates this change better than the “Song-Along” scene, in which our main characters join several recent real-life Eurovision contestants to sing a mashup of pop songs such as ABBA’s “Waterloo” and Cher’s “Love after Love.” Pulling from his experience directing Maroon 5 videos, Dobkin and cinematographer Danny Cohen shoot the sequence like a pop music promo clip. The camera twirls around the room, holding only on the performers, all each attack the camera with smiles. They peer at the audience and demand we have fun because they are having so much fun indeed.
As I hope that description reveals, I don’t care for the modern pop aesthetic. But as chart numbers and the fact that I’m an old man also reveal, lots of people do. So if you unironically enjoy Eurovision and post-2000s pop, Eurovision Song Contest will likely work for you.
But be warned: if you (like me) find the style irritating, then Eurovision Song Contest falls apart after the first 30 minutes. This is not This is Spinal Tap, this is not Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.
So disinterested in jokes is the last 2/3rds of the movie, that even potentially good gags feel underdeveloped. There’s a bit about Lars’s father (Pierce Brosnan, appearing only to remind us that goofy but sincere movies about Scandinavian pop music do exist) being such a small-town lothario that even Lars and Sigrit are related. But that joke gets no more development than a couple of dialogue lines and the characters’ last name. There’s a payoff involving the ghost of Katiana that’s so good, I wish there had been some sort of set-up. There’s even a bit about Lemtov being a closeted gay man in Russia that’s done so badly that I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be dramatic or comedic.
The sloppiness of the last bit underscores the problem with the entire movie. It’s simply badly made. Poor editing kills the pacing and Dobkin completely fails to sell any dramatic element. Again, bad plotting doesn’t matter in a comedy, but Eurovision Song Contest isn’t really a comedy. It’s a love-letter to the Eurovision Song Contest.
If you like Eurovision, then that might be enough. If you like comedy, well. Maybe go watch a Mel Brooks movie instead.