"Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga," Will Ferrell's goofy and highly quotable parody of the long-running European spectacle, is the first great comedy of 2020 and it couldn't have come soon enough. There hasn't been much to laugh about lately.
The competition, which was cancelled this year for the first time in its 64 years, is a peculiar fascination for those Americans who are even aware of it. I barely was. And the acts are so eccentric and over-the-top that it almost defies satire. But the film, written by Ferrell with "Saturday Night Live" veteran Andrew Steele and directed by David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers"), isn't out for cheap shots at its expense. Instead, it's a warm riff on a subculture — in the vein of "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights" — that has the potential to get better with repeat watches.
Ferrell has had a few misses lately, but he is back in fine form here as Lars Erickssong, a middle-aged Icelandic man with lovely, wavy shoulder-length hair and a childhood dream of winning Eurovision. He's been devoted to it since seeing ABBA's winning performance of "Waterloo" in the 1974 edition. This is all much to the embarrassment of his fisherman father Erick (an amusingly unamused Pierce Brosnan).
Lars and his childhood friend Sigrit Ericksdottir (a particularly brilliant Rachel McAdams) make up Fire Saga, who sing original techno pop anthems and occasionally covers of "Happy" at the local bar. They're not exactly untalented but they can't seem to set a foot right on the stage. A fluke lands the classic underdogs in competition in Iceland against the country's great Eurovision hope (played by Demi Lovato). And although each performance is more disastrous than the last, they're able to keep advancing despite themselves.
Sigrit is in love with Lars, who is charmingly delusional but more of a grown up than Ferrell's standard man-child. Still, he's too consumed with Eurovision to focus on her. There's also a running joke that she is "probably not" his sister.
McAdams and Ferrell are, unsurprisingly, a joy to watch. Together they affect an innocent exuberance, enlivened by their chirpy, pseudo-Icelandic accents and colorful costumes. Their song is even pretty catchy. And perhaps most surprisingly there is some actual emotion to their relationship.
The film gets a burst of funny with the introduction of Dan Stevens' Russian singer Alexander Lemtov, a highlighted Adonis with an exaggeratedly operatic baritone and a talent for braiding hair who takes a liking to Sigrit. Stevens steals every scene he's in. Who knew the "Downton Abbey" veteran had broad comedy in his arsenal of skills? A party at his overblown mansion features a massive medley of "Believe," "Ray of Light" and "Waterloo" with a bunch of actual Eurovision regulars that puts "Pitch Perfect" to shame. There is inexpiable auto-tuning, fireworks and even some shirtless acrobatic valets, because why not?
It's often hard to see comedies for what they are, or what they might be, on first viewing. But "Eurovision" is that rare film that strikes the right chord from the start. And, weirdly, it might even spark some interest in the actual show.
"Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga," a Netflix release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America "for crude sexual material including full nude sculptures, some comic violent images, and language." Running time: 123 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.