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 between.
FIRE SAGA falls squarely in the latter category. It’s a mean spirited, mercilessly unfunny, and aggressively awful film about punching down.
Lars Eriksson (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 real talent in the duo, but she’s easily cowed by the bullying and overbearing nature of her friend. Through sheer happenstance they’re selected for the vetting process and are one step closer to realizing their dream. Things happen, loyalties are tested, and by the time it’s all over everyone learns 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 good will. It rides the coattails of an event it openly mocks, pretending like a final tug at heartstrings somehow makes the agonizingly long two hours before it worthwhile.
There’s nothing preventing filmmakers from telling stories about underdogs who aren’t quite normal, but it needs to come from a place of good intentions. Ferrell has always had this bizarre idea that just because he casts himself as the butt of the joke it somehow gives him carte blanche to insult whatever group he thinks of next. Such is the case with FIRE SAGA, where the leads are children stuck in adult bodies, as it is with every Ferrell movie. Sigrid believe in elves, magic, and lives with her mother. Lars can’t hold a job and is openly scorned by the people around him. Their only pastime is playing the local town hall, where people demand a repeat of a simple party song night after night. Their clothes are highlighted for their ill-fitting and mismatched styles, and there’s a persistent gag about how they’re possibly related despite their feelings 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 that Lars clearly 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 which has no business being dragged down by the likes of this.
The plot is exactly what you’d expect from an American lowbrow comedy. Most of the 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 actually the courage to be a dark comedy about the inherently silly nature of the contest it could probably work. But it doesn’t commit to anything. A throwaway gag where a group of people are horribly and viscerally killed is left dangling without payoff, while 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, who is 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 most limp soap box 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 cost.
To call the jokes low-hanging fruit would imply they hadn’t fallen off the tree and rotted 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 apparently 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.
At least the performances look and sound reasonably authentic, but even here you can tell that nobody seemed to care about getting in any good gags. Belarus performs a monster pop-ballad in the style of LORDI, 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. One balcony scene (you’ll know it when you see it) in particular 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 it’s being dumped into the wilderness. Which is exactly what it deserves.
This is a terrible, terrible film. I hated sitting through every minute of its excessive 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.