Director: David Dobkin
Writers: Will Ferrell, Andrew Steele
Cast: Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, Dan Stevens, Natasia Demetriou
Cinematographer: Danny Cohen
After rising from the ashes of the financial crisis, Iceland has been the world’s favourite cultural underdog over the last decade. Sigur Rós and Björk have shone a musical light onto the volcanic island nation. The Icelandic football team has jumped leaps and bounds, reintroducing not just the Viking Thunder Clap into public consciousness but also defeating England to make the quarterfinals of the 2016 European Championships and then qualifying for their first FIFA World Cup in 2018. Icelandic television shows such as Trapped and The Valhalla Murders have single-handedly elevated the Nordic noir template. Modern Icelandic cinema – The Deep, Woman At War, And Breathe Normally, Life in a Fishbowl, Rams – has begun to make its mark at both European and international film festivals. Perhaps it was only a matter of time, then, before Iceland became the new shining jewel in comedian Will Ferrell’s anti-cinematic legacy. Now this truly puts Iceland – a country otherwise known as Greenland in Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and as “that Game of Thrones place” – on the USA world map, doesn’t it?
In David Dobkin’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, writer-actor Ferrell tips his crass parody hat to Iceland through the filmmaking lens of the over-exuberant “music movie”. Every narrative trope in the book – obscure small-town aspirants, famous contest, disapproving parents, secret romance, Russian rivalry, American ignorance, behind-the-scenes drama, kitschy-pop ballads – is mercilessly trolled and repackaged as a spoof on what is otherwise a gratingly self-serious genre. The title is a deliberately unsubtle play on the two documentaries that exposed the scam behind the failed 2017 Fyre Festival. Naturally, the middle-aged Ferrell and the eternally young Rachel McAdams play childhood friends who form an Icelandic band called “Fire Saga” – complete with terrible accents, a quirky townspeople, a grumpy father (Pierce Brosnan, because he starred in the ABBA musical, and ABBA was one of the Swedish bands that won the actual Eurovision contest), and names like Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir.
Every narrative trope in the book is mercilessly trolled and repackaged as a spoof on what is otherwise a gratingly self-serious genre
And naturally, the real-life Iceland – featuring recognized artists like Ólafur Darri Ólafsson and Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson – plays the good sport, because it’s the only Nordic nation to have not won the Eurovision Song Contest since its debut in 1986. On another day, it might have been the equally sporting New Zealand, with Kane Williamson and some LOTR grass playing happy roles. I’m sure a nonsensical American parody is a welcome change to the local actors, who otherwise spend too long blending into the bleak winter landscape of cold, long-form whodunnits. It’s particularly nice to see the bushy Ólafsson smile a little. Two seasons of Trapped can take a toll on anyone’s beard.
The self-deprecating cameos by stars like Demi Lovato and Graham Norton overpopulate a film that’s so focused on being a cringe comedy that it overshoots the finish (finnish?) line by a good 30 minutes. Eurovision Song Contest, like every second Will Ferrell movie, aims to be so offensive that the viewer is pummelled into ridiculed submission. Almost every frame reeks of the “Oh, you hated it? That’s exactly what we were going for!” syndrome. I get that it’s supposed to be super-stupid, and an in-joke on the United States’ own cultural ignorance, but there’s also such a thing as overindulging even within this smart stupidity. Scenes between McAdams and a Russian suitor go on forever, and Ferrell dares to test the patience of his own fans by being uncharacteristically boring.
A song-along sequence at a castle party plays out like a Cher-weds-Madonna period club remix, while elf homes and dancing whales dot a land that’s already being colonized by an American sense of humour. I do salute the makers for having the audacity to strip Iceland of its beauty and film it like a giant frat house, and I do believe we need a chuckle these days. But despite these generous allowances in 2020, I cannot possibly endorse an 8-word title that’s purposely long so that it can then mock us for wasting our time because we have nothing better to do in lockdown. I’d rather not laugh than laugh at a film’s practiced inability to make me laugh.