Sincerity is the key to every great Will Ferrell comedy. His classics, such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, are surreal satires of American arrogance. But they work because the title characters are earnest creations—buffoons invested with the genuine belief that what they’re doing is special. That makes Ferrell an ideal match for a movie about the Eurovision Song Contest, the international competition of soaring ballads and thunderous pop jams that has long straddled the line between camp ridiculousness and charming authenticity.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga debuts on Netflix at a moment ripe for comedy escapism. (Like Anchorman and its predecessors, the film also bears an overstuffed title.) The movie is an ode to a live event that has been canceled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, and it respects the contest’s silly traditions enough to serve as a useful substitute. Eurovision is also a sweeping cinematic effort, with the director David Dobkin taking in dramatic Icelandic vistas and staging several full-blown musical numbers amid all the comic antics. Made in cooperation with Eurovision, it’s the rare work of movie branding that manages to both mock and honor its subject.
The Eurovision Song Contest, which pits each country on the continent against one another in a battle of balladry, has existed since the mid-1950s and has always been a good 10 years behind every musical trend. Though successful acts do emerge from time to time—most famously ABBA, who won with “Waterloo” in 1974, and Celine Dion—the event is better defined as a celebration of opulent pop nonsense from far-flung acts you might never hear from again. A favorite one year could be a crooning vampire or a demonic metal band or a bunch of older Russian ladies baking cookies onstage. It’s a world with its own strange rules that can be bent in the name of satire, just as Ferrell did with local news and NASCAR, and the result is his best comedy in years.
Ferrell plays Lars Erickssong, a wayward Icelandic singer who dreams of debuting his disco ballads on the Eurovision stage. He and his childhood pal Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams) make up Fire Saga, a group that has not managed to graduate beyond performances at the local bar and still earns the scorn of Lars’s salty fisherman father, Erick (Pierce Brosnan). Somehow, the film, written by Ferrell and Andrew Steele, manages to thread the satirical needle with Fire Saga. Their heartfelt music isn’t bad, just a little out of step with the times and hampered by Lars’s bumbling immaturity.
After all kinds of plot machinations, Fire Saga ends up being selected as Iceland’s Eurovision entry, and it’s off to Edinburgh, where the contest is being held. The plot smacks somewhat of The Producers—Fire Saga is being offered up in the hopes that it’ll fail, but the duo somehow keeps finding ways to succeed. The miracle is that the story always makes some sort of sense, because Dobkin and Ferrell understand the crucial Eurovision balance of absurdity and triumphant confidence. That combination is perhaps best defined by Ferrell’s decision to sing his own vocals (most of the cast is dubbed by professionals)—he’s not exactly Broadway-ready, but what he lacks in polish he makes up for with gusto.
The character of Lars is familiar territory for Ferrell, though, a lovable goof who somehow succeeds. The film’s biggest weapons lie in the rest of its ensemble, especially with McAdams, a great dramatic actress who is not-so-secretly one of the funniest people in Hollywood. Consider her expertly calibrated villainy in Mean Girls, or her brilliantly vapid line readings in Game Night—she’s a terrific comic foil. The loopy but sincere Sigrit, who firmly believes in the power of invisible elves, is a delight to root for. Just as winning is Dan Stevens as Alexander Lemtov, a dramatic Russian crooner out to sow chaos among our Icelandic pals.
As someone who grew up watching the song contest, I probably would’ve enjoyed Eurovision if it were simply an acidic satire, mocking the stage antics and frosty geopolitics that play out every year. But Dobkin’s enchantment with the whole event took me by surprise, especially because he’s usually a more cynical, downcast storyteller (his past efforts include the jock-y comedy Wedding Crashers and 2014’s serious The Judge). Midway through Eurovision, Lars and Sigrit attend a party thrown by Alexander that erupts into an extravagant medley of pop classics, with the camera swooping and swerving from room to room as past Eurovision winners belt out famous choruses without a hint of irony. That sequence encapsulates the film’s chipper spirit perfectly—this is a comedy that knows how to make fun and have fun.