What an unexpected treat Ken Loach's
soccer inspiring football-centric "Looking For Eric," was and makes the case for going into a film mostly blind.
Loach's 2006 film "The Wind That Shakes The Barley" won the Palm d'Or that year, but we didn't know much about this one going in other than it was apparently a "comedy" -- not the most obvious genre, for the naturalistic, kitchen-sink dramatist -- and that it revolved around football (soccer for the yanks).
Joyous, philosophically-minded and brimming with a zealous, but mannered lust for life, 'Eric' stars Steve Evets as Eric Bishop, a 50-year-old postman facing a midlife crisis, which manifests itself in an opening-scene breakdown and car crash (naturally, we counted like 4 car crashes in Cannes films at least). Eric's life is miserable and appropriately London-gray and initially, the picture feels worrisomely pallid and remarkably drab, which suggests a slog. His insolent step-sons are a parent's worst nightmare with their wanton disrespect and impudence is hellish. And it's also incredibly English and sometimes characters' butchering of the language (them thick accents) is hard to discern making the introduction a little rough going for non-Brits, but minor patience soon rewards with a hilarious, loving and celebratory framework.
Somewhat chameleon-like, the film starts out (albeit after the aforementioned opening) as a comedy with surreal elements that slowly escalates into an intense family drama; Loach really does throw in all the emotional textures from the kitchen-sink.
Eric is free-falling in own self-made emotional tailspin and what he can't face is the return of Lily (Stephanie Bishop), his ex-wife/ love of his life that he hasn't seen in three decades. Their 30-something daughter Sam (Lucy-Jo Hudson) is having school issues and needs her parents to babysit her child which means meeting to pass off the child and confronting some of his greatest, swept-under-the-carpet fears.
The sense that Eric is slipping is apparent to his mates and postal co-workers and their misguided attempts to cheer him come from a good place, but are unhelpful. However, the well-read, though perhaps still dimwitted, Meatballs (John Henshaw) does have an interesting self-actualization idea; reading aloud and forcing the group of pals to imagine someone who loves them and other self-help book psychobabble (it's hilarious seeing a group of portly middle-age working class Brits attempt this obviously). It doesn't work and a distraught Eric is brought to the brink and begins to speak of suicide. Desperate, he goes into his son Ryan (Gerard Kearns)'s room and finds a spliff to calm down or simply melt away reality.
Out of nowhere -- of perhaps from that puff of smoke -- appears his hero: real-life '80s football (soccer) star and Frenchman Eric Cantona, famously known for his pugilism turned soft and philosophical (and often nonsensical) musings in interviews and press conferences. He was also the beloved star of Manchester United for some time which earned him the eternal admiration and respect of many Brits (Eric's room boasts an almost lifesize poster of the footballer, Cantano infamously once dropkicked a fan in the stands during a match he was so incensed).
Eric is flabbergasted at the presence of Cantona, but soon the two are bro'ing down, talking about life and the and the philosophy of the sport (which of course is usually a metaphor for our existence; strive, achieve, succeed). Conversations soon turns to Lily, but Eric can't cope and reels at the very thought of her. Sharing spliffs, the postman and his imaginary friend/new life-coach chat at length with Cantona talking about his achievement in sport as allegories for life--there is no winning without risk, he knowingly suggests ("He who is afraid to throw dice will never throw a six," he says, "He that sows thistles shall reap prickles," is another, perhaps umm, more obtuse maxims).
These latenight talks taking stock of the day are hilarious and heartfelt as the two new "friends" bond over shared experiences. They're also obviously absurdist and unreal, but the simple unstylized manner in which they're shot work terrifically. From there Lily and Eric get closer to meeting, and the step-kids chaotic behavior exacerbates and chafes, the narrative shifting between these two stories, while always taking a time-out for Cantona and his amusingly profound life lessons.
The mid-plot storyline of Ryan's (Eric's uber-insouciant step-son) involvement with a local Chav-y thugs is the film's biggest problem. Its jarring, abrupt tone take the film from its whimsical serio-comic flights into an intense drama realm and the disparate sections don't always gel congruently. The family cannot go to the police, an attempt to reason with the thugs finds pitbulls sicked on poor Eric and a police raid in the house looking for an illegal pistol interrupts a family dinner and freaks the fuck out of Lily. The scene is just brutal and heartbreaking. An almost devastating setback for Eric who is repairing the relationship with his family and ex-wife. Not at all heavy-handed or milked, but as an audience you nearly weep for Eric for such a misfortune to befall him.
Still, it does give Eric conflicts and the chance to rise to the occasion as Cantona has been urging him all along, taking him out of a fitness regime and trying to bolster his self-esteem and outlook on life. When all seems lost, Eric, with Cantona's help, hatches a plan to hurt the thugs where it pains them the most: their pride and their reputation. Their wildly concocted scheme embarrasses the jackass, wannabe (while still truly dangerous) gangsters and makes them lose face, culminating with a hysterical crescendo of an army of friends -- teammates in life, natch -- who descend on the bastards with cameras (for blackmailing YouTube posterity), red paint filled water pistols and Cantona masks.
Cantona is obviously a figment of Eric's imagination, but nevertheless, their friendship is deeply heartfelt and poignant, so when the football star gives him his final nod of approval, it's an emotionally moving moment. Loach refuses to use the denouement with Eric's family to wrap things up in a nice Hollywood bow, but you're still left with an optimistic and hopeful mood. "Looking For Eric," is essentially a lighthearted, feel-good picture in many ways, but with an emotional heaviness, as done so by England's preeminent realist, and the winsome film sports a tremendously genuine and life-affirming sweetness that's t0o honest to ever taste syrupy. [A-]
We've already suggested that "Looking For Eric" will find some sort of prize at Cannes, just based on its own merits, and then when you consider the beloved French football star Eric Catona, it might just prove to be the over-the-top element the movie needs, though the Palme seems reserved for more serious films ala the way the Oscar is usually held for dramas. Cantano's most famous quote is what he said in a press conference in response to his brutal, fan-dropkicking incident and how every moved he made after that would be watched closely. "When the seagulls follow a trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much," he said, and the hilariously aphorism is preserved in the film's credits. The film has just been picked up by IFC which is a nice enthusiastic endorsement of the film.
Cannes '09: Ken Loach's Shoots And Scores With Celebratory Life Lessons Football Dramedy, 'Looking For Eric'
What an unexpected treat Ken Loach's