The Eurovision Song Contest is inherently goofy, which proves to be a problem for the attempt to parody it in Netflix original movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. The annual event features countries across Europe (and beyond) competing with original songs performed in over-the-top production numbers, and it’s a celebration of unabashedly cheesy pop music (past winners include ABBA and Celine Dion). It’s a massively popular event internationally, although it still has niche appeal in the U.S., and The Story of Fire Saga relies on familiarity with Eurovision for much of its humor. With the 2020 event canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, the movie from star and co-writer Will Ferrell turns out to be a pretty poor substitute.
Ferrell plays Lars Erickssong, half of the Icelandic musical duo known as Fire Saga. With his best friend and musical partner Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams), Lars performs at parties and weddings in his small hometown of Husavik, but his lifelong dream is to compete in Eurovision. Lars and Sigrit are sort of the laughingstock of Husavik, especially from the perspective of Lars’ stoic fisherman father Erick (Pierce Brosnan), who doesn’t approve of his son’s musical ambitions. But thanks to a series of unlikely coincidences (including the death of every other possible competitor in a boat explosion), Fire Saga find themselves as the official representatives for Iceland in the latest Eurovision competition.
They travel to Edinburgh for the show, but the other competitors and the Eurovision producers don’t give them any more respect than the residents of Husavik do, and their early performances are marred by mishaps. The movie is structured like a classic underdog story, with Fire Saga determined to overcome their detractors, but the conflict is all half-baked and underplayed, with antagonists who don’t seem to care all that much about whether Fire Saga succeed or not.
Sigrit and Lars are targeted, respectively, by handsome Russian singer Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens) and sultry Greek singer Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut), but their efforts to sabotage the duo are mild and unenthusiastic, just placeholders to pad out the movie to its unnecessary two-hour running time. Even Lars’ conflict with his father only warrants a handful of scenes, and is resolved with a few lines of dialogue. A subplot about a government finance minister who wants Fire Saga to lose so that Iceland doesn’t have to bear the cost of hosting the competition the following year disappears for long stretches of the movie, only to return with bizarre violence late in the third act.
The main conflict, then, is between Lars and Sigrit, although their opposing interests aren’t very well-defined. Sigrit has been in love with Lars since they were children, but he can only focus on his musical ambitions. The romance is completely unconvincing, and the idea that Ferrell and McAdams, with their clear age difference, were children together makes no sense. Ferrell plays the same kind of overconfident buffoon he’s played many times before, and Lars has echoes of Ferrell’s ice-skater character in Blades of Glory (another underdog in flamboyant outfits) and the uncomfortably enthusiastic music teacher he played alongside Ana Gasteyer in a series of Saturday Night Live sketches.
Ferrell and McAdams barely even attempt Icelandic accents, and the movie is full of jokes based on Icelandic stereotypes (Sigrit believes in elves and entreats them to lead Fire Saga to victory). The Eurovision material barely has jokes at all, and while the original songs are believably bombastic pop numbers, they’re largely played straight, without any clever parody elements. The climactic number is a completely heartfelt song about Husavik, with soaring vocals from Swedish pop singer Molly Sanden (who performs Sigrit’s singing voice throughout the movie). A sing-off-style sequence at a party (essentially lifted from the Pitch Perfect movies) allows the filmmakers to cram in cameos from a bunch of real-life Eurovision competitors, without giving them anything meaningful to do.
The movie’s awkward title makes it sound like a promotional behind-the-scenes documentary, and director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus) gives it a bland, TV-style look to match. Despite the abundance of original songs, the movie often cuts off musical numbers midway through, as if it’s embarrassed to be showcasing this kind of bubblegum pop. At least the real Eurovision knows exactly what it’s trying to be.