Can a streaming service be an auteur? The auteur theory, first propagated by the film critics of the publication Cahiers du Cinema in 1950s Paris, argued that it is the director, not the writer or producer, who is the true creative author of the film. Believe it or not, this was a revolutionary concept. The director-as-auteur theory has now held for over 60 years, but, watching “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” a mostly lame Netflix comedy starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, I’m starting to believe that Netflix itself is the new auteur.
How do we characterize a Netflix movie? Well, there are two kinds. Movies like “Roma” and “The Irishman” are clearly designed to imitate studio prestige movies. They’re meant to win Oscars, and they’re not what I”m talking about here. The other kind of Netflix movie feels like a carbon copy of a Hollywood blockbusters. The pieces are in place – charismatic leads, big set pieces, strong craft work – but the picture is faded. You can feel the corporate overlords putting those pieces together for a film that panders to as many specific countries as possible – vital for Netflix’s plan for world domination – and is just mindless enough to have on in the background while you check your phone.
Despite a few inspired moments, “Eurovision” is one of those films. It looks like one of Will Ferrell’s best comedies, but it’s missing that inspired sense of lunacy that made “Step Brothers” and “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” this century’s most rewatchable comedies. Ferrell plays Lars, another one of his sensitive losers, an Icelandic singer who dreams of winning the Eurovision Song Contest and earning the respect of his disapproving father (Pierce Brosnan). There’s also his band member and inevitable love interest, Sigrit (Rachel McAdams), who exists only to worship him, and then not worship him, and then worship him again.
I’m being a little hard on the movie. There’s actually a lot to like. Particularly in the first half, Ferrell and McAdams whip up a delightful chemistry. There’s an hilarious subplot revolving around Sigrit’s belief in elves, and the duo’s optimism in the face of overwhelming odds – and the total lack of support from their friends, family and neighbors – is infectious. When they are on the upswing, so is the film.
But at some point, the laughs die because the film isn’t content to be a silly diversion. First, they ask us to cheer on our naive but talented protagonists. A second later, we’re expected to point and laugh at them as one of their big numbers on live TV goes horribly wrong. Then a minute later, we need to be back on their side. The tonal inconsistency is the result of trying to serve too many masters. With characters originating from all over the world, Bollywood-style musical numbers, and a determination to take its characters seriously and also write off their escapades as pure silliness, “Eurovision” is a dizzying experience. It will make your head spin so fast you might not even notice how lame what you’re watching is. Maybe that’s the point.