Friday, February 26, 2016

Eddie the Eagle: Truly soars

Eddie the Eagle (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and too harshly, for mildly suggestive material and partial nudity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.26.16

Winning isn’t everything.

Sometimes merely participating, and doing your best, is enough. More than enough.

When Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman, left) finally, reluctantly, agrees to help train wannabe
ski-jumper Michael "Eddie" Edwards (Taron Egerton), the task proves an uphill challenge
for a young man with no athletic grace whatsoever.
We tend to forget, after the increasingly overblown sequels, that in his 1976 film debut, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa merely wanted to “go the distance.” And that’s all he did, which is — in great part — what makes that film such an endearing classic.

British director Dexter Fletcher’s charming Eddie the Eagle is cut from the same cloth. This whimsical underdog saga is fueled by an engaging performance from Taron Egerton, superbly cast as Michael “Eddie” Edwards, the wannabe British ski-jumper who made such an improbable — and improbably triumphant — showing at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.

An opening statement is careful to note that this big-screen account of Edwards’ exploits is “inspired” by actual events, which allows scripters Simon Kelton and Sean Macaulay to play fast and loose with a few details. They’re careful to retain the essential broad strokes that brought Edwards to Calgary, and of course his performance at the Olympics is a matter of record (and can be viewed in any number of YouTube videos).

But various supporting characters have been conflated or invented outright, in the manner we’d expect from a crowd-pleasing, feel-good movie. That’s less of an issue in this particular case, as such liberties merely augment the myth-making that put Edwards in the history books. Somehow, it feels appropriate.

Besides which, when the result is this enjoyable, it’s hard to complain.

We meet young Eddie as the bespectacled only child of working-class Cheltenham parents Janette (Jo Hartley) and Terry (Keith Allen), the latter a construction plasterer by trade. Despite poor vision, worse knees — the boy is shackled into a leg brace — and an utter lack of coordination, Eddie lives and breathes a foolish notion of growing up to become an Olympian.

Fletcher brings us through Eddie’s childhood with a brief prologue that highlights the boy’s stubborn pluck, much to the delight of his doting mother, and the exasperation of his aggrieved father. Hartley and Allen are delightful: She’s the mum we’d all love to have, while Allen — all bluster and bluff — makes ample use of his busy background as a popular character actor.

And how can we not adore a child who believes that holding his breath underwater for not quite a minute will qualify for some obscure Olympic event?

Having achieved maturity — in years, if little else — Eddie (now played by Egerton) has lost none of his helpless, hopeless dweebishness. But he seems wholly unaware of what a ludicrous figure he cuts ... or, to be more precise, he’s fully aware of his shortcomings, but simply doesn’t care. He’s driven solely by inflexible perseverance and an unyielding belief in himself.

Thus, when he impulsively decides to embrace skiing as his sport of choice — despite having absolutely no experience — his parents see this as merely another in a long line of futile endeavors. And, as it happens, Eddie’s enthusiasm is far from enough to win him a place on the British ski team.

He therefore switches gears, to ski jumping ... because of stumbling upon an unexpected advantage. Since Great Britain doesn’t have a ski jumping team, Eddie need only make one qualifying 70-meter jump, in order to represent his country at the Calgary Winter Olympics ... as a “team” of one.

Cue his dogged pursuit of the impossible dream. Despite being too old, too heavy and utterly inexperienced.

(It’s important to recognize that this film overplays Eddie’s lack of coordination; the real-life Edwards was a much better skier than we’re led to believe here.)

Much of what follows is accurate: amazingly, unbelievably so. As a wholly unfunded athlete, Eddie really did borrow the family van in order to drive around Europe in pursuit of a qualifying jump; he really did sleep rough, and take on various odd jobs just to feed himself.

But the unlikely booster in this cinematic Eddie’s saga is the stuff of big-screen artifice. Hugh Jackman co-stars as Bronson Peary, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking American and tarnished former ski-jumper now consigned to smoothing the snow at a German training and practice facility. Peary is an amalgam of the many actual coaches the real-world Eddie obtained and lost during his eccentric efforts at training, and it’s a “movie star” role made for Jackman.

At first only annoyed by this brash kid who doesn’t even understand the dangers of the sport he’s pursuing, Peary gradually comes around, inevitably won over by Eddie’s bright-eyed doggedness. Jackman wears his part well, with just the right blend of exasperation and, soon enough, almost startling respect. We see it in Jackman’s eyes: At the end of the day, Peary can’t turn his back on somebody with so much can-do spirit ... even if he does inhabit a can’t-do body.

Jackman’s big-screen charisma notwithstanding, the film belongs to Egerton. His face alone is to die for: almost cross-eyed due to poor vision, and invariably marked by a turned-down grimace of a smile that is the spitting image of the actual Edwards’ weird-looking grin. The impersonation is almost spooky; Egerton looks, acts and moves a lot like Edwards, as revealed by the archive photos that unspool alongside the film’s closing credits.

Mostly, though, Egerton wins us over with his giddy, goofy eagerness: his graceless physicality becomes utterly irresistible. He’s the klutz we can’t help adoring.

It’s quite a switch from the tough street kid-turned-suave secret agent in 2014’s Kingsman. That film was directed by Matthew Vaughn, who serves here as co-producer.

The always reliable Jim Broadbent pops up as an Olympic sportscaster who indulges in this film’s cutest — and most predictable — one-liner. Tim McInnerny earns our loathing as a boorish British Olympics official who views Eddie as a loathsome pest likely to make a mockery of the games. Rune Temte is hilarious as a condescending Norwegian coach.

Christopher Walken briefly appears as a veteran ski jumping coach who has “history” with Peary, in an underdeveloped subplot that doesn’t really go anywhere until a fairy-tale climax that’s rather too Pollyanna-ish, even under these circumstances.

The unabashed sentimentality of Fletcher’s approach, along with the “unlikely underdog” storyline, evokes pleasant memories of James Corden’s depiction of Paul Potts’ equally far-fetched determination to become an opera singer, in 2013’s One Chance. There’s just no question that the British have a knack for such films.

Then, too, movie fans are apt to recall 1993’s Cool Runnings, and its fact-based (and hilarious) depiction of the equally improbable Jamaican bobsled team that qualified for the same Winter Olympics. (Obviously, Calgary was the place to be in 1988.) Vaughn was similarly inspired; if the press notes are to be believed, he revived long-dormant plans for Eddie the Eagle after recently watching Cool Runnings with his children.

Whatever the catalyst, the results are delightful. Eddie the Eagle is both an entertaining film and an equally important reminder of Pierre de Coubertin’s timeless quote: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning, but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering, but fighting well.”

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