Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review: Looking for Eric

*Context: Below is a special review I wrote at the Filmspotting message boards in the leadup to the community's annual award event (their version of the Oscars in many ways). I was asked by one of the members, codename pixote to review the most recent Ken Loach film, Looking for Eric.

Looking for Eric (2009, Ken Loach)
Dictated by pixote

I like going into movies with a little bit of context, such who the director is, which actors are involved, maybe a screenwriter, the premise, etc. Being unfamiliar with Ken Loach’s filmmography, the cast or the screenwriter, I was left with a plot synopsis, which explained the Looking for Eric told the story of a lower middle class man named Eric (Steve Evets), living a sad, unfulfilled life as a Manchester postman (unmarried, two teenage stepsons who don’t respect him in the slightest) who receives some unexpected emotional support from the former footballer (soccer player) he idolizes, the one, the only, le roi Cantona (Éric Cantona), a legendary player for Manchester United.

When I read that I thought it sounded interesting. I greatly enjoy soccer. Playing it, reading about it, watching games on the tele. I wondered why pixote dictated this film however. From what I gather, pixote doesn’t care much for soccer, meaning it probably isn’t familiar with Éric Cantona and the man’s importance in the annals of soccer or what sort of impact he in particular would have on this sort of movie. I guessed that it had more to do with the general premise (which sounded unique) or maybe even a familiarity/admiration for director Ken Loach, although pixote awards most movies Cs or C-s, so I really don’t know what pixote likes. Who knows. Regardless, my interest was aroused upon discovering what the film was about and the involvement of such a memorable player as Cantona, so I was sold. I mean, Cantona played for a club that I am supposed to loath (I’m Arsenal all the way. Thierry Henry forever!), but petty team-based emotions aside, there is no denying that Cantona was one of the greatest players ever to play the English game, ManUnited player or not. His goals were works of art. Picasso painted, Hugo wrote, and Éric Cantona scored goals. A charismatic maestro who led by example and accomplished most of what he did with a flare that I don’t think anyone has ever re-produced since. I don’t anyone can, quite frankly.

Looking for Eric is a hybrid of sorts. Firstly, director Loach adopts a cinematographic style reminiscent of the popular cinema vérité, or docu-drama style that characterizes many dramas released in recent years. Rather than pretty steady cam shots, the frame is hovering and shaking just over a person’s shoulder, in the back seat of a car, at the messy dinner table and so on. Just as with the other dramas, Looking for Eric has an ‘of the moment’ feeling, as if what the viewer sees is happening right at that moment. Real life captured immediately on film, if you will. Add to that the central character of Eric Bishop, who has little to no control over his teenage stepsons, is living with the regret of past mistakes, and has recently disappointed his twenty-something year old daughter when the latter asked him to care for her child for bit, something he failed to do (he got in a car accident before picking up the baby). Without feeling overly dark and oppressive, the movie, for long stretches in the first half, has a reasonably gritty tone. 

His mates at the post office have noticed that Eric has been feeling rather blue as of late and propose to give him a bit of a lift via a meditative session where they all pretend in their minds to take on the confidence of a famous personality. His friends pretend to be Ghandi, or Nelson Mandela, whereas Eric pretends to be Cantona, which they all agree is a fantastic choice (they’re all massive United fans). The second element of the ‘hybrid’ factor enter into the foray later that day, when Eric is smoking some pot to relax after yet another turbulent day with family. More arguments with the boys, and now his university student daughter wants him to bring her child over to Lily (Stephanie Bishop), his ex-wife who he left years ago after a panic attack he received shortly she fell pregnant. Needless to say, things between them have been difficult ever since, to the point where they haven’t spoken in years. Suddenly, while staring at the glorious poster of Cantona that graces Eric’s bedroom wall, who should appear like magic at the far end of the room but le roi Cantona. Utterly shocked at the figure’s ghost-like introduction, Eric stammers a little bit before asking his surprise visitor to prove that he really is the famous footballer himself, to which the figure responds:

‘Je suis…Éric Cantona!’
Phuck! What the phu- What the bloody hell are you doing here, mate!?!

‘Clearly’ Cantona is here to provide Eric with a much needed moral boost. A confidence boost as well. You know what, why don’t we get in shape a little bit while we’re at it as well, shall we? Every now and then, just when it seems that Eric is losing his way, the footballer will spontaneously appear and spout some philosophical gibberish and catchy sayings.

La plus noble des vengeances, c’est de pardonner.

The noblest of vengeance is to forgive.

He basically goes on saying these little two second recipe answers and suggestions that relate in some way to whatever current problem Eric is challenged with. While the protagonist himself will sometimes grow tired of his idol’s cryptic messages, the truth of the matter is, he does begin to see things in a different light, changes his manners in some degree and attempts to be a better father and a better husband than he essentially never was by seeing Lily more often. Why Cantona is present is not so important. Eric loves everything man did for his club, his confidence and his panache. Cantona is essentially who Eric wants to be, and so he looks deep inside of himself for new answers to same old difficult questions he has had to ask for all these years. Who among us has not looked to heroes, figuratively or literally, for inspiration when facing difficult times. It doesn’t matter if that hero is your father, mother, next door neighbour or Matt Damon. Inspiration is all that matters.

Now back to what earlier referred to as a hybrid structure. Put simply, Ken Loach juxtaposes a gritty realism with an element of the fantastic. It is fair to say that there is nothing genuinely fantastical about the picture because Cantona is not really there, but a figment of Eric’s imagination, an episodic conversation is having but with himself. Nonetheless the pseudo-appearances of the famous United player inject a sense of the quirk to Looking for Eric, a film that otherwise doesn’t have any. I can absolutely see how some might find this mixture of disparate stylistic choices difficult to digest. For one, the beginning of the film, as mentioned above, is dark and promises a tone resembling that found in perhaps Revolutionary Road or the Red Riding Trilogy. But such a tone cannot be sustained throughout, not with an illusory Éric Cantona appearing out of thin air. C’est de la comédie pure! What? It is pure comedy. Well, not entirely, some the conversation they engage (or that Eric engages with himself) are more serious in nature and subject matter, but this whole notion of a man having imaginary conversations with his favourite football star, the latter whom frequently retorts with throw away life lessons, prevents Looking for Eric from staying true to what could have been. For this reviewer, such shifts were not taken with disappointment. The mish-mash of tones was an interesting experiment, one that pays off in the end. I like it when a director will throw things into a picture to see what shall come of it. Again, the dichotomy is not the greatest thing ever, but it was quirky enough to sustain my interest.

What arguably hurts the film the most is what surrounds the center of attraction, that is, the story development as the film’s running time reaches the 60 minute mark. There are no false steps per say, no dumbfounding story telling decisions are made. In fact, the gist of the story plays everything rather safely. For a film that utilizes such a fun premise, it chooses to have the overall plot evolve in rather predictable manner. Eric’s sons get into some gang trouble just as he is getting sociable with his former lover Lily, throwing everything into a chaotic spin. The trouble involves a pistol one of the lads was hiding in his room to help a gang member and bla, bla, bla. Not just that, but all of the threads are tied up nicely at the end, with a beautiful bow-tie at that. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for an absolute downer of an ending, but I could not help but feel Looking for Eric experienced some turbulence when deciding what exactly it was going to do with the family drama aspect of its story. It had a good, even great wild card tossed in, but was unsure as to how to proceed with the rest of the story and therefore chose a slightly predictable route. I even wonder if the presence of Cantona is the detriment because, well, he’s so cool (he really is) and such a unique character. With him around, do you want to put a ton of emphasis on a story so wild and wacky that le roi Cantona becomes an afterthought? That being said, I loved Steve Evets and Éric Cantona in the movie. They have fantastic chemistry. Evets is excellent at playing the single father hanging by a single thread, trying to keep everything help together, emotionally that is, with nothing but a little glue stick.  The visits from Cantona provide him with an undeniable lift. Hell, I don’t even like Manchester United (I have grudging respect however. They’re so good. I want my team to be as good as they are!) but seeing Cantona was awesome. I’d like to know if the football career moment that Cantona mentions in the film as his favourite really is. That would be brilliant. Hint: it’s not even a goal.

The film has a built in audience. If you don’t enjoy dramas and don’t care for soccer (and have little to no clue who the heck Éric Cantona is), then you are already on the outside looking in. You might still enjoy the film, not saying you can’t, but really ‘getting’ it becomes a bit more difficult. It’s a fine picture, with some fantastic acting and some hysterical dialogue scenes for those who know their English football, but in the end feels a bit too neat, a bit too polished for its own good. A nice diversion, but it won't being having any lasting impression on me.

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