The Thrill Of Defeat, Or An Evening At "Eddie The Eagle"
The new film about Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards, legendarily shitty ski-jumper and comic hero of the 1988 Winter Olympics, is not a hit. But it is surprisingly fun.
Image via YouTube
The 1988 Winter Olympics were known as much for those who tried as for those who won. A generation of kids grew up watching Cool Runnings, the fun and very heavily fictionalised tale of the first Jamaican bobsled team. Last weekend, the other hilarious underdog tale from those games got its chance in theaters. I am proud to say that my ticket contributed to the not-quite-success of America's No. 6 Movie, the feel good sports dramedy Eddie The Eagle. It is the often funny, often touching, always highly 1980s tale of one-man British ski jumping team Michael "Eddie" Edwards, whose lack of skill did not preclude him from winning the silver in his countrymen's hearts, but did help him finish dead last in actual competition.
Taron Egerton is Michael Edwards, a nerdy British kid who dreams of Olympic glory but just isn't good at very much. Eddie has a father who dreams of holidays in Blackpool and a new van for his plastering business, and a mother who dreams that both father and son are happy; she is even less fleshed out than the father, who is at least drawn as an authentically dull guy. Our hero eventually is good enough at downhill skiing to fuck up his chances of making the Olympic team in a very obvious gag. When the snow has settled and the rest of the team picks themselves up, Eddie is let go but still undaunted in his dreams of gold.
Exploiting loopholes to get what you want is a universal phenomenon, and Eddie Edwards decides the best way to compete is to attempt ski jumping. He succeeds at sleeping in closets, embarrassing himself in a sauna, and completing a hilariously short ski jump. Eventually Eddie also befriends an American burnout played by that consummate Yank, Hugh Jackman, whose boozing and dickishness got him kicked off the U.S. team years ago. This magical American drunkard, in the manner of John Candy's Irv Blitzer in Cool Runnings, gets his act together just enough to train Eddie, but also make sure he doesn't gets his hopes up.
The Olympics themselves are almost an afterthought, after so much time is used up for training, fighting the evil British Olympic Cabal, and rudimentary character development. Eddie's teammates haze him out of an appearance at the Opening Ceremonies, while Jackman tears Eddie a new asshole for enjoying himself. Matti Nykänen – the real-life Finn who would win gold in Calgary in the 70m, 90m, and team events – is given a nice monologue to show how much he respects Eddie before their long hill jumps.
Eddie's final jump is a perfect metaphor for the entire film. At the very beginning of this attempt, there is a "DENTAL PLAN ... LISA NEEDS BRACES ..." moment wherein Eddie listens to all the haters and the losers in his head, and he finally gives it a shot. He slips a little at the start, but then adjusts himself, only for his ass to almost bring him down upon landing before finally getting back up. All this time, everyone is screaming for Eddie to soar like some sort of bird, and the CGI crowd, the overwhelming facade of the entire movie, gives way to pure emotion. Queue Van Halen's "Jump," and you have yourself a good climax to a decent sports movie.
Eddie The Eagle's first act is its best, where the humour and the humanity is clearest and fastest to arrive. While there are effective moments throughout—seriously, it's pretty good—the energy wanes when it stays in Garmisch too long. The creators of this movie must have believed that the true story of Eddie The Eagle was not, um, sexy enough for the big screen, and so they grafted what could have been a half-decent fictional story onto an incredible true story. Taron Egerton seems, if anything, to have toned down Eddie's dorkiness; the real Michael Edwards, who offered to perform the stunts in the movie before filming, looks like a gawkier British Lou Holtz.
One of Eddie The Eagle's greatest strengths is its numerous set pieces, including the use of Prince Charles and Princess Diana salt and pepper shakers to illustrate the distance Eddie needs to jump to qualify. The moment when the ski jump literally reveals itself on a (very fake) Winter Olympics poster is hilarious, although the conceit that ski jumping is a lot like screwing Bo Derek is a lot less so. The use of Petra The Lusty Barmaid as a sexual red herring worked, but Iris Berben, Germany's answer to Rene Russo, is given little to do afterwards.
This movie probably would not have been made 10 or 15 years ago, before CGI made it possible to film a ski jumping movie without having so many stunt people getting legitimately injured in the more gnarly crashes. Even the mere possibility that some of these falls were just really good CGI made me laugh as if it were America's Funniest Home Videos. For all I know, 20 stunt skiers could have died in the making of Eddie The Eagle, and they've just managed the public relations very well. That said, we never get a true sense of exhilaration, or even risk, like in Werner Herzog's ski-flying documentary The Great Ecstasy Of Woodcarver Steiner. But then of course we don't, because that was a Werner Herzog movie and this is a movie about the shittiest ski jumper in Olympic history.
Taron Egerton (Eggsy from Kingsman: The Secret Service) does a good job with conveying this movie's idea of Eddie Edwards: a milquetoast but loveable young man who bites his lip and is almost perpetually ready to cry. With his moustache and glasses, Egerton's Eddie is more Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre in The Informant! than Stupid Sexy Flanders. Jackman is unsurprisingly good in the thankless John Candy-esque role of Bronson Peary; it's not Jackman's fault that his character's redemption angle feels hollow. Christopher Walken's cameo, although nicely Walken-y, is largely relegated to audiobook narration before the very end. Jim Broadbent, who you loved in Iris, does a good job as the stereotypically British Olympic announcer. The recognisable British character actor Dexter Fletcher does not appear on the screen, but does a great job as a director in getting good performances from his actors and in building set pieces that work.
Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the Minneapolis-St. Paul of the German Alps, is a scenic skiing resort that was, um, host to the 1936 Winter Olympics. Problematic past aside, it makes for a very scenic shooting locale, one that Eddie The Eagle uses to great aesthetic advantage. It's also very good to see the tables turned for once, with the Calgary scenes filmed in the Alps. I always love how Canada seems to be a geographic substitute for everywhere else in sports movies, from Winnipeg doubling as Houston and Montreal pretending to be Baltimore, to Vancouver standing in for pretty much everywhere. The lack of cowboy hats and people calling the host city "Cal Gary" was a disappointment I had to overcome.
Quite a few factors played a part in Eddie The Eagle's box office failure. For one thing, Eddie The Eagle is perfectly timed to be released at the furthest possible distance between the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics. It also does not help that we are at a relative nadir for narrative sports movies in general; every trope seems to have been exploited and 30 For 30 and other sports documentaries are running laps around their fictional counterparts. It's going to take two or three non-Draft Day Kevin Costner movies to get us out of this rut.
There is a chance Eddie The Eagle was made as a labour of love, but you don't know whether the casting of "Viva Laughlin" star Hugh Jackman betrays or confirms the movie's non-commercial aspirations. No amount of endorsement from Super Bowl MVPs could convince people that Eddie The Eagle was worth watching, although I bet the addition of Joe Flacco to that Super Bowl pregame ad would have helped.
Still, it's a shame that moviegoers are ignoring Eddie The Eagle. For all its faults, for all its by-the-numbers plotting and soul-deep artificiality, it is a crowd pleaser. Every single person in the theater had tears in their eyes by the end, which even for a crowd of one is an accomplishment. Small achievements are still achievements, be they making one person truly enjoy a fair-to-good movie, or becoming the greatest British ski jumper of all time. For that alone, Eddie The Eagle (wait for it) deserves the gold.