Will Ferrell and Jon Stewart drop dated comedy bombs onto streaming platforms

If you've never heard of the Eurovision Song Contest, stop reading right now and go fall down a YouTube rabbit hole of its most famous televised performances. It's been an annual tradition since the 1950s and has produced superstars like ABBA and Celine Dion. It's one of those long-standing cultural traditions that has, over the decades, settled into the perfect blend of earnestness and goofiness that would seem ideal for a movie parody.

But a new Netflix film with the ungainly title Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a mostly laugh-free farce about a couple of idiots who bumble their way into Eurovision and — surprise, surprise — become unlikely favorites in the competition. They're played by Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, lifelong friends who have started a terrible band called Fire Saga and who dream of representing their native Iceland in Eurovision.

There's no way they'd make the cut in a normal year, but a series of bizarre circumstances (including a yacht explosion) lands them a spot as Iceland's representative musicians. Soon they're in Scotland for the big show, rubbing elbows with a flamboyant Russian pop star played by Dan Stevens (the brightest spot in the film) and desperate to prove their critics wrong.

All of this sounds funnier than it actually is: Somehow the idea of Will Ferrell singing a dance-pop song while running inside a giant hamster wheel isn't as amusing in practice as it probably seemed on paper. The already thin premise is stretched out to two hours, so that it drags on and on and on, repeating a lot of jokes that weren't all that hilarious the first time.

Director David Dobkin is best known for comedies like Wedding Crashers, but he's also got a background in music videos, and Eurovision Song Contest works best when it becomes a full-blown musical extravaganza. The only really good sequence in the movie comes about an hour in, when our heroes go to a party with past Eurovision contestants and perform a mashup of songs while the camera swirls around them. The fake songs, meanwhile, are pretty believable: A '90s house-inspired song called "Double Trouble" is genuinely catchy, as is the barroom sing-along "Ja Ja Ding-Dong," an incessant earworm built on childish double entendres.

But goofy songs only get you so far. The film was made with the cooperation of Eurovision, and maybe that's the problem. There's almost too much reverence here and not enough bite. It has apparently already found a devoted following in the two weeks it's been on Netflix, so maybe you'll find it funnier than I did.

Irresistible purports to be a satire of our current political climate, and yet it somehow seems completely unmoored not only from contemporary politics but from the real world and normal human behavior. What's most surprising about it is that it was written and directed by Jon Stewart, who hasn't been a regular TV presence since 2015, which may explain why his satirical muscles have apparently atrophied.

The movie stars Steve Carell as a Democratic strategist and Clinton family confidante named Gary Zimmer, still licking his wounds from losing the 2016 election. He sees his possible redemption in a popular YouTube clip that shows a farmer and former Marine in rural Wisconsin defending the rights of his immigrant neighbors. Zimmer thinks he can transform that virality into political success, so he hops on a private jet and heads to the Midwest.

What he finds is like the Twilight Zone as directed by Frank Capra, a small town so hospitable that it's almost creepy. But Zimmer successfully convinces that farmer (Chris Cooper) to run for mayor as a Democrat, and it causes enough of a ruckus in the media that Zimmer's right-wing counterpart (Rose Byrne) shows up to throw her weight behind the sitting mayor.

Now, I'm willing to grant the film its premise of the entire country turning its attention to a measly mayoral election, but did we really need tired jokes about how people from big cities like organic food while people from small towns like burgers and beer, or dated references to people like Joe the Plumber? Stewart never settles on a tone, either, and he often lets Carell mug in ways that feel less like character choices and more like, well, an actor mugging in front of a camera. A third-act plot development sort of explains away some of the movie's weirdest choices, but it also reverses the entire purpose of the story and then cuts to black.

I came of age when Stewart was the sharpest voice in political comedy, when he took to Comedy Central every night to point out the hypocrisy on both sides of the ideological aisle. He now seems as out-of-touch as the elitists he's lampooning: There are times when he appears to be aiming for the caustic, all-sides-are-bad nihilism of Alexander Payne, or the bombast of Sidney Lumet's all-time great media satire Network (the latter's most famous line gets a shoutout here), but he's too glib and didactic to nail either one. ♦

Hollywood of the North: North Idaho and the Film Industry @ Museum of North Idaho

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Oct. 30
  • or

About The Author

Nathan Weinbender

Nathan Weinbender is the Inlander's Music & Film editor. He is also a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, where he has co-hosted the weekly film review show Movies 101 since 2011.