'Eddie the Eagle'
Hollywood sure loves a sentimental sports bio-pic. You get the built-in drama of a sporting event and the crowd-pleasing fuzzies of a triumph-over-adversity story along with a celebrity protagonist that a famous actor can plug into and chase Oscar nominations. We get many of these movies. Too many even. Enough that they’ve gotten tediously predictable. (See last week’s ‘Race’ for more. Or actually, don’t bother seeing it.) That’s why ‘Eddie the Eagle’ proves to be such a pleasant surprise.
If you don’t know the story of England’s infamous 1988 ski jumper, then you’re the perfect person to see this movie. Eddie Edwards’ underdog sports tale is actually surreal, funny and touching enough to be worth telling. Sure, it’s still poppy inspirational fluff, but at least it’s poppy inspirational fluff with some wit and oddity. That’s worth celebrating.
Taron Egerton hides his sub-Bond glamor of ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ behind a pair of goofy glasses and a prominent underbite to play Edwards, a young boy who always dreamed of being an Olympic ski champion. When it became clear that he’d never make the downhill team for the 1988 Olympics, Edwards decided to become a ski jumper. Now, this wasn’t because it was a second skill that he’d quietly developed. No, it was because there hadn’t been an English competitor in that field for so long that Edwards realized all he needed to do was meet a bare minimum number of outdated requirements to represent his country in the competition.
So, with no money and a flagrant disregard for his personal safety, Eddie went off to Germany to learn how to ski jump. There he was met with oodles of mockery from international competitors and one former ski jump prodigy (Hugh Jackson) who had been sucking back booze in a puddle of self-destruction for years. Eventually, Eddie convinced the drunk to be his coach and managed to make the Olympic team. At the competition, the guy’s jumps barely qualified for competition, but they set British records since no one had bothered much with the sport. As a result, he became an underdog celebrity of sorts.
Yes, this is one of those underdog sports bio-pics like ‘Rudy’ or ‘Cool Runnings’. In fact, the latter movie is an obvious point of comparison. It’s not just strikingly similar in tone and structure, but ‘Eddie the Eagle’ makes a passing reference to a Jamaican bobsled team that was at the same 1988 Olympics. This isn’t the story of an inspiring champion. It’s about an eccentric who so desperately wanted to compete that he picked a sport he was woefully unqualified to specialize in purely because there was no competition in his way. That’s an amusing enough story on its own. The fact that the sport is the death-defying ski jump makes Eddie’s impossible optimism somewhat psychotic, and that’s where most of the humor and drama of the film derive.
Directed by Dexter Fletcher (a.k.a. Soap from ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’), the movie has a distinctly British brand of sardonic humor. Though Eddie is presented as an optimistic hero and delightful nebbish by the talented Egerton, he’s also a bit of a loon. He has no chance of winning, but he doesn’t care. Merely to compete in the Olympics is the height of his ambitions and the movie has endless fun with the goofy absurdity of that goal in the face of champion sports movie conventions. The neon 1980s fashions, pop hits and massive glasses are also all trotted out for ‘Napoleon Dynamite’-like campy laughs.
Fletcher plays with all the sports drama clichés like training montages and celebratory climaxes with a tongue lightly in his cheek given the disparity between his high stakes filmmaking and the low stakes of Edwards’ achievements. It’s a playful stab at the genre with little ambition beyond serving up inspiring drama and awkward comedy. The fact that the dangerous sport is so intrinsically cinematic certainly helps, leading to wild CGI-assisted sequences of flying through the air at incredible heights that deliver genuine thrills. There’s even an undercurrent of British class warfare that provides a satiric sting to all the crowd-pleasing.
‘Eddie the Eagle’ bops along pleasantly with its wacky and colorful visual design, enjoyably comedic performances, and built-in inspirational beats. It’s hard not to get caught up in the fun, especially thanks to the sarcastic humor the filmmakers employ to undercut all of their necessary clichés. The movie plays like a crowd-pleaser. The trouble is that despite all the self-conscious jokes and stylish filmmaking, it’s ultimately a very simple little sports movie that never really transcends its genre. The competing skiers are all essentially cardboard villains, Christopher Walken’s high profile cameo feels wasted, and facts are fudged throughout the final act to simplify the story for the sake of a rousing finale. The filmmakers might have found new ways to play out the “Believe in yourself” sports movie drivel, but they never truly rise above it.
Still, these problems are only likely to register on the way home from the theater. In the moment, ‘Eddie the Eagle’ presses all the right buttons to be a giddy sports movie delight. That’s all the filmmakers were hoping for, so it’s hard to complain too much when the film hits its meager goals. In fact, you kind of have to admire the style and grace with which the filmmakers shoot for the middle. You know, kind of like a certain unexpected British ski jumper.