Few stars in the history of comedy have burned brighter than Will Ferrell. After starting on Saturday Night Live in 1995 he became one of the few cast members to find success at the box office as well. A cameo in Austin Powers was followed up with several SNL inspired movies A Night at the Roxbury and The Ladies Man; while none of these were smash hits they also performed better than the previous efforts to bring SNL sketches to the big screen. Following Zoolander and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in 2001 Ferrell quit SNL in 2002 and his popularity skyrocketed almost instantly.
The levels of success Will Ferrell saw in the years 2003-2010 is practically unprecedented, Elf, Anchorman, Step Brothers were all released in that 7 year stretch. In the era of the unrated DVD Will was king with his incredible ability to improv line after line of funny material along with his willingness to go the extra yard in terms of putting himself out there. The 2010s weren’t as kind to Ferrell’s brand of humor, especially after Anchorman 2 fell short of critical, box office and audience expectations. So, when it was announced that 2020 would see the new Will Ferrell-Rachel McAdams comedy land on Netflix instead of theatres I was concerned that Ferrell had lost his drawing power; there was a strong argument for it on the heels of the dreadful Holmes & Watson. Luckily in the steady hands of director David Dobkin Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is easily the best comedy of the first half of 2020 and maybe of the last couple years in general.
Eurovision is the tale of an Icelandic man (Ferrell) and his much more talented singing partner (McAdams) attempting to get an original song in the Eurovision song contest, an American Idol sort of televised competition that pits songs from different countries of origin against each other. The premise is simple and silly yet it works on every level, proving that sometimes you don’t need to reinvent the wheel as long as you can execute a tried and true formula really well. Part of what makes Eurovision special are the secondary performances, Pierce Brosnan, newcomer Melissanthi Mahut, and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson are all quite funny in their roles but the real standout is Dan Stevens as a Russian competitor that would be perfect for a Tiger King musical adaptation.
While on the subject of music, the soundtrack to the movie is comprised of original songs that are both catchy and laugh out loud funny. From the opening music video for “Volcano Man” (Ferrell provides all the vocals for his performances while McAdams has a little help on some of the more difficult notes) to the competition songs, I found myself rewinding and listening to them multiple times due to losing half of the lyrics to laughter. The closest modern comparisons I can think of in terms of original music quality are Walk Hard or Get Him to the Greek but the songs from those slip into playlists a little easier whereas the Eurovision songs work so well with their performances it’d be hard to separate the two. ***
One of the more impressive things Eurovision manages to accomplish is making the chemistry between McAdams and Ferrell believable. Beautiful women being paired with a non-traditionally handsome funnyman isn’t a new concept but it manages to feel much more natural here than in most comedic films/series. The on-screen interactions feel natural and you believe the friendship at the base of the possible romance is a strong enough foundation to allow a romantic element to be built upon. I have a bit of an aversion to rom-coms so maybe it is more common than I am aware of but it still felt nice to see a romantic element that wasn’t forced in for no reason. It may seem like a small thing but it’s that kind of detail that elevates Eurovision amongst most of its contemporaries.
Another surprising element was the fact that the cinematography stood out far more than your average comedy. Iceland feels more like a secondary character in the film than just a location and the gorgeous backdrop adds quite a bit to the finished product. Earlier this year Ferrell starred in Downhill which was also set against a gorgeous display of European snow-capped mountains, but in that case the locale failed to add much to the ultimately uncomfortable plot; further proving that Eurovision is an example of catching lightning in a bottle.
2020 finds the comedy world at a truly awkward time, gone are the glorious raunchy days of 2008 when Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express were all released in the same summer. The last 7years or so have seen a reversal back to the PG-13, heavily themed comedies that flooded the theatres in the late 90s and early 00s, attempting to extract some safe laughs without causing much controversy. I find it disappointing that our quest for a better world ends up extracting a toll on our entertainment quality. It is one thing to have higher expectations for our leaders and politicians but to extend that to comedy, a genre built to push boundaries and challenge comfort levels, feels more like an exercise in futility than any variation of progress. That being said Eurovision is about the best we can hope for in a watered-down era for the genre, being funny enough to watch with friends while being safe enough to throw on around some of the older relatives.
Check out guest contributor Donnie’s other work by visiting him on Twitter: @cantscaredonnie
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