There is a recurring joke in Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (which we will shorten to Song Contest for both our sake), in which Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) prays to elves who she believes will help her and Lars (Will Ferrell) achieve their dreams of making it into Eurovision. It’s one of several surprising fantasy elements introduced into the film that makes you wonder, “Wait… is this good?” It’s a fair question given that hardly anyone is likely to go into Song Contest expecting much. Will Ferrell, once comedic superstar gone supernova, has unfortunately more than earned our skepticism as of recent.
It’s been years since the last Ferrell vehicle that was worth watching, let alone great on the level of some of his best works like Talladega Nights, Anchorman, The Other Guys, and Step Brothers. Many of us have a particular fondness for his work, having grown up on the aforementioned films to consider him one of our greatest living comedy actors. What is striking about the fantasy elements of Song Contest is that it calls back to a time when Will Ferrell movies were not only defined by his man-child antics… but by how f*cking weird they could get. That sort of unhinged, anything can happen feeling is what makes Will Ferrell, at his best, so exciting to watch. It’s a marriage of the perfect actor for the perfect source material. Some actors elevate mediocre material. Will Ferrell simply becomes and accentuates it.
Song Contest follows two aspiring popstars hoping to represent Iceland in the annual Eurovision Song Contest, an international competition in which singers from across the globe come together to see who is the biggest, best, and boldest of them all. In recent years the competition has sparked a particular interest in the United States, with a devoted fandom quickly emerging – making it perfect for the feature film treatment. On paper, producer Adam McKay and Will Ferrell coming together to make a movie about such an event would almost immediately inspire expectations for a sort of lampooning of the event. What follows instead is something surprisingly gentler and more sincere.
The Icelandic popstars are played as broad and silly as one might expect from Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, but there is a certain level of nuance below the surface that gives way for some oddly touching moments. It’s actually Rachel McAdams who serves to heighten the material here and gives it the faintest glimmer of pathos that goes a long way in creating actual characters and story to be invested in. Her natural charisma and heart even seem to rub off on Will Ferrell, who is more game here than he has been in a long time.
However, anyone would be remiss to discuss Song Contest without praising Dan Stevens, who once again proves to be able to spin just about anything into gold. An otherwise thin and stereotypical character is brought to life through his charisma. He plays the part with as much commitment as his other acclaimed performances and radiates an energy that bounces off every actor he interacts with. It’s just plain fun. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Stevens, Ferrell, and McAdams are all in on the same character motivation, which is simply the pursuance of true authenticity. There is nothing new about “be yourself” messages in movies, but rarely are they delivered so warmly and with such inclusiveness. While watching you actually feel… included? As if the movie just wants to give you a hug and hopefully make you laugh too. Which unfortunately brings us to the film’s biggest failure.
It isn’t very funny.
There are of course funny moments here and there (again, the recurring elf joke via Rachel McAdams is truly hilarious), but overall the movie is so consistently silly and unabashedly sincere, that any jokes at the expense of the concept or characters feel almost counterproductive to the film’s thematic ambitions. It can feel cumbersome watching a weird, sweet movie that randomly pivots to the kind of riff-along raunch that reminds you that you are, in fact, watching a Will Ferrell movie. There are also the moments in which the film seems to stop dead in its tracks to launch into Pitch Perfect style music numbers populated by cameos and pop tracks which leave a certain commercial “and be sure to watch the real Eurovision” aftertaste in your mouth. It’s inevitable, but still no less jarring when it happens.
In the end, it’s hard to know what to make of such a strange movie that is at once a 2-hour ad for a real-life competition and also a sweet little story of two funny people singing catchy songs and falling in love. In a way, there’s something almost comforting about it. You’ll laugh a little, tap your feet more than you might expect, and maybe come away feeling a little happier than you did before. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga isn’t going to win any awards, but it does just enough to place.