Considering its focus on an Icelandic pop-music duo named Fire Saga — and that A Saga of Iceland and Fire was right there — Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga has to be a front-runner for 2020’s worst title. OK, maybe it’s just 2020’s most instructively generic title. You do get a Eurovision Song Contest, which, for the first time since 1956, you won’t in the real world thanks to a global pandemic. And however perfunctory and pedestrian, you get a story about the perils Fire Saga faces in its pursuit of superstardom.
Fire Saga — which premieres Friday on Netflix — is otherwise mostly a gaggle of floofy wigs and goofy accents on a largely fruitless search for punchlines across two unnecessarily luxurious hours; indeed, director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) has flirted or flown past two hours in all of his movies since 1998. Lest it lose the company blessing, Fire Saga is too timid to truly mock the kitschy spectacle inherent to the actual contest — in which primarily European countries submit original songs that are performed on TV and radio before participating nations cast votes to crown a winner. And given the foolishness from Will Ferrell (here producing, co-writing and starring), Fire Saga’s earnestness feels no less faux than the fur flying all around Anna B. Shepherd’s costume design.
Imagine if Ferrell allowed the World Figure Skating Championship executive board to approve the script for Blades of Glory or if NASCAR had exerted more brand-management control over Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and that approximates the tepid tone of Ferrell’s latest tie-in.
He plays Lars Erickssong, a huffy and hapless habitant of Husavik, a tiny Icelandic town so picturesque that even the whales emerge from water with synchronized greetings. Lars has dreamed of writing and performing a song to compete at Eurovision since he was a young boy in 1974, watching his Nordic neighbors ABBA win with “Waterloo.” Too bad Lars’s widowed taskmaster dad, Erick (Pierce Brosnan), would “rather be dead” than see his son compete on a global stage where he’d almost certainly embarrass himself. (Perhaps fearing typecast ABBA adjacency late in his career, Brosnan mostly bounces after Fire Saga’s first act.)
Jump to the present day, where Lars and his lifelong friend, Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams), make up Fire Saga … and make do playing songs like “Ja Ja Ding Dong” (a song presented as Iceland’s equivalent of “Free Bird”) to bars full of beer-swilling malcontents. On their own time, Lars and Sigrit workshop originals like “Volcano Man” and the admittedly catchy “Double Trouble.” When it comes to songcraft, at least Fire Saga brings the big guns in a manner not unlike Music and Lyrics. Swedish pop singer Molly Sandén mightily doubles on vocals for McAdams, “Trouble” is co-written by big-time pop songwriter Rami Yacoub, and the film’s climactic power ballad, “Husavik (Hometown),” is co-written by Savan Kotecha, who helped pen chart-toppers for The Weeknd, Maroon 5 and Demi Lovato.
Lovato herself turns up as Katiana, a seeming shoo-in as Iceland’s Eurovision contender with her sleek, shimmery pop style. Fire Saga, for what it’s worth, finishes 12th out of 12 at the Icelandic competition after Lars’s fly-system mishap with angel wings. But a strange twist of fate finds Fire Saga forging ahead to the full competition in Scotland — during which Sigrit also decides to amplify her romantic overtures to Lars in hopes of finding domestic bliss. In other words, it’s just like Once if Once cracked at least a dozen jokes about its romantic leads potentially being siblings, and yes, this means McAdams — more game face than Game Night — does her herculean best with the thinnest comic material she’s had since The Hot Chick.
Too asinine to alight to anything beyond artistic pursuits, Lars can’t take Sigrit’s hints. But it’s not long before Greek-pop chanteuse Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut) is seducing Lars and Sigrit is swept up by the swanky lifestyle of Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens) — a pansexual Russian rascal whose centerpiece song, “Lion of Love,” seems to concern interspecies copulation.
Stevens’ transition from dashing Downton Abbey hunk to prolific big-screen performer hasn’t always been smooth. But he’s definitely the secret weapon of Eurovision — enlivening an otherwise ephemeral comedy with both appropriately silly energy and unexpected compassion. Stevens appears to have had sparkle troweled onto his face, his shirts seem incapable of covering more than 50% of his chest at any one time, and his feline purr might have you believing he’s part cat.
Perhaps the smartest thing in Ferrell and Andrew Steele’s script is that Lemtov is not the louse he lets on. Alas, a movie in which he turns out to be the hero over Ferrell’s buffoonish lout isn’t what we get; even by usual standards for suspension of disbelief over the dunderheaded behavior of Ferrell’s characters, Lars’s stage shenanigans feel preposterous. Instead, the film alternates between flamboyantly filmed evocations of Eurovision performances and parties (indiscernible from the real deal as comic effect goes) and flimsy redemptive uplift for Lars, who also lobs ugly-American jokes that, strangely enough, landed with greater force in the unfairly maligned Holmes & Watson.
A foofaraw about fiscal obligations of the country who wins Eurovision feels like a feeble holdover from the financial furor that drove The Other Guys. And as good as Fire Saga’s final song is, something’s really not working when you feel more deeply about the emotions underlying Step Brothers’ mashup of “Con Te Partirò” and “Boats ‘N’ Hoes” than you do when Lars and Sigrit find their voices. (Ferrell’s singing also pales beside that film’s more operatic Fergie-Jesus combo.) As you’ve gathered, the real story of Fire Saga? One told better in a lot of other Ferrell movies.