Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams belt out cheesy pop earworms as fictional Icelandic dreamers in Netflix’s “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” channeling the camp spirit with which the actual Eurovision — an international songwriting competition started in 1956 — has been synonymous for decades. But one of the film’s most irritating choices is also its central premise: In the year 2020, is there really any charm to be mined from the exploits of the bumbling, buffoonish man-child?
Ferrell, of course, has made the trope his bread-and-butter his entire career, here adding Lars Erickssong to his oeuvre of lovable oafs. The hypersensitive musician, who hails from a tiny fishing village in Iceland, has hung a lifetime of daddy issues upon winning the over-the-top Eurovision competition. He idolizes Eurovision ‘74 winners ABBA (who doesn’t?) and pens catchy but shallow songs with titles like “Volcano Man” and “Jaja Ding Dong” while trying, and failing, to win over his disapproving father (Pierce Brosnan).
The only one who believes in Lars is his earthy and kind bandmate Sigrit Ericksdottir (McAdams), a manic Nordic dream girl resplendent in chunky Scandinavian knits and ocean-sprayed tresses. She also believes that murderous magical elves grant wishes. Sigrit is a talented vocalist who hasn’t yet found her voice, the true artist in the duo. But as the script by Ferrell and Andrew Steele insists, she’s also so desperately in love with Lars that she makes his Eurovision dreams her own in the hope that, if they win the contest, he’ll finally date her.
It’s an insult to female artists everywhere, not to mention thankless work on McAdams’ part, that “Eurovision” clings to such outdated gender dynamics and tired formula. As its thin premise stretches out over a bloated 123-minute runtime, the question festers. Why must Sigrit’s dreams, her ambitions, her wants and desires be tied to the ambitions of an egocentric fool? It’s the kind of story conceit, masked under the guise of a dual-focus musical romance, that serves only one protagonist: the stubbornly idiotic man.
Alas, tied to Lars she is, and together they are Fire Saga, the most ridiculed musical act in all of Iceland. By some mix of chance or fate or magical elves, the underdog duo winds up representing Iceland, to the chagrin of a villainous bank executive (played by Swedish actor Mikael Persbrandt), and the film diverts its very American lens onto Eurovision itself — although exactly what any of that means to Lars or Sigrit on a deeper level is left superficial and unexplored.
Given seemingly ample resources, director David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”) and cinematographer Danny Cohen (“The King’s Speech”) mount handsome sequences across the continent. The action travels from the craggy coastal climes of Husavik, Iceland, to the cobbled streets of Edinburgh, Scotland, where wide-eyed naifs Lars and Sigrit find themselves thrust into a world of LED-filled arenas, ginormous productions and glamorous mansion parties.
Colorful contestants enter the picture, like Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens), a seductive Russian singer who takes a shine to Sigrit, and Greek diva Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut), who sets her sights on Lars. “Eurovision” picks up steam as it expands in scope, leaning into the big personalities and exuberantly flashy theatrics. Dancing somewhere between mimicry and gentle mockery — and partly filmed at the 2019 Eurovision — numbers such as Lemtov’s bullwhip-cracking “Lion of Love” evoke the circus-like theatrics recognizable to anyone who’s watched the annual event or fallen down rabbit holes of Eurovisions past. (One of the film’s biggest set pieces, involving an 8-ton hamster wheel stunt gone awry, is directly inspired by Ukraine’s 2014 entry.)
With few exceptions, however, the satire is too blunted to say anything substantive about Eurovision, an event watched by hundreds of millions across the globe each year, or the artists who fuel its zaniness — artists who, like Fire Saga, dream of winning the top prize for either personal glory or national pride. A brief, clumsily handled remark on the anti-LGBT policies of Russia, a participating country since 1994, is the closest “Eurovision” comes to critiquing the expressly nonpolitical stance the event officially takes despite intensely political times.
“Eurovision” leaves you wanting more for Sigrit, someone who deserves to dream bigger than the screenplay allows her to. But you also want more for the handful of actual Eurovision contestants who pop up briefly in singing cameos, reduced to musical mise-en-scene and adding much of the film’s representation of diversity as background to Ferrell’s antics.