When Will Ferrell is at this best, be it in Old School, Blades of Glory, Talladega Nights, or whatever, it’s when he finds a layer of sweetness beneath the goofy, sophomoric antics. This works especially well in the classic underdog formula, and when Ferrell has a capable partner he can share the screen with. With Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (hitting Netflix on June 26th), Ferrell finds harmony with Rachel McAdams in an endearing comedy as ludicrous and corny as the titular competition itself.
The Eurovision Song Contest is indeed an actual thing. Consider it the red-headed stepchild of international singing competitions, it’s known for a weird array of contestants in garish costumes and debatable talent, although a few genuine stars (ABBA, Celine Dion) have emerged from it. It’s a laughingstock, basically, and ripe for the kind of satire Ferrell and co-writer/director Andrew Steele (The Spoils of Babylon) traffic in.
Ferrell and McAdams play Icelandic duo Lars and Sigrit, who have been obsessed with winning the Eurovision contest since they were children, much to the embarrassment of Lars’ father (and probably not Sigrit’s? It’s a running gag), played by a bearded and ornery Pierce Brosnan. Their group, Fire Saga, get no respect from the locals in their small fishing town, who only want to hear them sing the same terrible songs over and over again. Lars has an ego twice as big as their village, but even he can see that he and Sigrit are a joke. However, his sympathetic non-sibling encourages him on and not-so-subtly wishes he would have the same passion for her as he does the music.
With Iceland suffering, Eurovision becomes their chance at redemption…or complete humiliation. So when Fire Saga somehow makes it into a local contest to decide who competes in the big show, nobody gives them a chance. And they fail…spectacularly, because of Lars’ incompetence. But when a nefarious act takes out all of the other competitors, Fire Saga are forced to be Iceland’s representatives. There is much chagrin to go around in this movie.
Lars and Sigrit’s stumble and bumble their way across Europe, embarrassing Iceland at every turn. But there’s also the growing sense that Sigrit would be better off without Lars, as she’s clearly the more talented of the two. This idea is even put in her head by the dangerously sexy and talented Russian singer Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens, hamming it up and loving it), who gets between the two seemingly out of sheer malevolence.
Despite the real-life competition being an easy target, Eurovision pulls its punches whenever there’s a shot at making fun of it. There is so much appreciation for the event that Ferrell never mocks it the way he could and, in this case, probably should. The same goes for Fire Saga, which is only made to look like losers when the focus is so clearly on Lars’ trajectory. But when the attention shifts to Sigrit in the second half, it becomes more of an earnest Cinderella story that we want to cheer on. They’re almost too sympathetic. The film is much funnier when it leans into the absurdity of the entire song competition enterprise, which has become about flash over substance. An unfortunate harness mishap, a costume malfunction crossed with a giant runaway hamster wheel…these are just some of the ridiculous self-destructive obstacles that Fire Saga endure to our tremendous pleasure. There are bizarre turns that, even for Eurovision, are just too far off the beaten path. Demi Lovato plays an undead spirit who lends Lars advice, while Sigrit seeks the same from a trio of elves living in little tiny Hobbit houses. Yes, it’s weird.
So while the tone and tenor of Eurovision is a bit off, Ferrell and McAdams make wonderful music together. The pseudo-sexual energy Lars and Sigrit give off, while simultaneously denying their possible relation is always a saving grace when the gags run hoarse. Ferrell’s awful accent is a hoot, and the more he tries the worse it gets. McAdams is the real show-stopper here, though. While she’s always been a comedic force (remember that she stole Wedding Crashers away from Vaughn, Wilson, and even Ferrell), it’s not often enough that we get to see her work those particular muscles. As Sigrit starts to come into her own, her journey into self-reliance is surprisingly heartfelt. Brosnan is also good in a role that mostly requires him to be a gruff old bastard, but when he does eventually soften it hits home more than expected.
Eurovision isn’t the laugh riot some fans of Ferrell and McAdams may have been hoping for, but the actors commit so fully to the immersive spectacle of the competition that we want this unlikely story to end in a song of victory.