The difference between laughing with or laughing at is small but significant, and it’s one of the biggest things that comedies, especially American ones, can’t seem to distinguish.
FIRE SAGA falls squarely in the latter category. It’s a mean spirited, mercilessly unfunny, and aggressively awful film about punching down.
Lars Ericksson (Will Ferrell) dreams of winning the Eurovision song contest. Nevermind the fact that he’s 50, lives with his father, and is barely able to hold a note. His partner and love interest (Rachel McAdams, deserving better) is the duo’s real talent, yet easily cowed by her friend’s bullying and overbearing nature. Through sheer happenstance, they’re selected for the vetting process and are one step closer to realizing their dream. But of course, things happen; loyalties come under fire in wacky scenarios, and by the time it’s all over, everyone will have learned a lesson about how funny Icelandic people are.
It’s not like the plot needs to make any sense because no one involved seems to care about it in the first place. You know within the first ten minutes where the story is going, and at no point is there any evidence that it might surprise you. It has no originality or wit, let alone heart or goodwill. It rides the coattails of an event that it openly mocks, pretending like the final tugs at heartstrings somehow make the agonizingly long two hours before it is worthwhile.
There’s nothing preventing filmmakers from telling stories about underdogs that are inherently silly, but it needs to come from a place of good intentions. In all his career, Ferrell has had this bizarre idea that just because he casts himself as the butt of the joke that it somehow gives him carte blanche to insult whatever group he thinks of next. Sigrid and Lars are displayed here as simpletons, especially as she believes in elves, magic and lives with her mother just as Lars with his father. When they encounter “real people,” their clothes are highlighted for their ill-fitting, mismatched styles, and there’s a persistent gag regarding potential familial ties despite the duo harboring a sexual desire for each other.
Ferrell, who can’t sing, does so throughout the film. The joke is that he’s not a good singer, and by extension, Lars is an idiot for dreaming of being one. McAdams is dubbed by Swedish artist My Marianne. Her songs and performance are from a completely different and far more interesting movie, one with no business slumming with the likes of this.
The plot is exactly what you’d expect from an American lowbrow comedy. Most drama comes from the expectation of sex and a heteronormative family unit, yet every depiction of it is in the most childish, nauseating way. A woman forcing herself on Will Ferrell as he squeals in terror is played for laughs, which couldn’t be more tone-deaf it tried.
Had the movie the courage to be a dark comedy about the contest’s inherently silly nature, it could probably work. But it doesn’t commit to anything. A notable gag, including a visceral and surprisingly gory murder, is left dangling without a payoff. Simultaneously, an utterly useless subplot about magical realism has all the hallmarks of the lazy “we ran out of time” style many modern comedies seem to rely on.
The lack of plot wouldn’t matter if the characters were any interesting. Dan Stevens plays an endearing but insufferably half-hearted antagonist, bafflingly treated as a one-note gay joke. Again, the film tries to have it both ways and laughs at his obviousness (Stevens is a Cisgender man) while then delivering the limpest soapbox moment to escape any potential repercussions. It’s as if even when the film tries to make a point, it has no idea how to say it, leaving the material floundering at the hands of talented actors who seem committed to saving themselves at all costs.
To call the jokes low-hanging fruit would imply they hadn’t fallen off the tree and rotten ages ago.
Pierce Brosnan (with a phony accent a mile wide) shows up to collect a paycheck as Ferrell’s caustic father, whose sexual prowess has fathered half the village, and that’s it. That’s the joke. Ferrell yells at American tourists to stay away from Europe since all they can do is make fun of it (har har). Most egregious is Graham Norton, apparently filming the part from his living room, reacting to absolutely nothing as he reads off cue cards statements about what’s happening on screen.
The performances look and sound reasonably authentic, but you can tell that nobody seemed to care about getting in any good gags even here. Belarus performs a monster pop-ballad in LORDI’s style, while Finland has a nondescript pop-trio in an apparent attempt at a joke, but one so obscure you’d need to call Dan Brown to figure it out. At its most cynical, the film parades old Eurovision winners in a stunningly obvious musical number where everyone sings 90s pop-songs because they just had extra to spend, I guess.
That money could have gone into making the film look anything like an actual film, but that would be asking too much. Instead, FIRE SAGA looks like a cheap TV special where no one is interacting with anyone. Even the big set pieces at the end look like they’re cut together from two separate locations, and one balcony scene (you’ll know it when you see it) looks laughably like a Spanish telenovela.
This is the kind of direct-to-video production most actors make in their early years and then pretend like it doesn’t exist. Releasing it now, at the height of a global pandemic with very few competing films around, feels like abandoning it into the wilderness, which is precisely what it deserves. This is a terrible, terrible film, made even more excessive by its two-hour runtime.
Instead, watch this music video from an actual Icelandic group. At under three minutes, it’s more witty, charming, and heartwarming than anything in FIRE SAGA, and the music is better too.