The old maxim stating that truth is stranger than fiction hasn’t stopped Hollywood continuously taking narrative licence when adapting true life tales for the big screen. New biopic Eddie the Eagle takes a moderately interesting if inessential true life story and transforms it into a crowdpleaser with a little help from the big book of cliches. Inter-family conflict, a drunken inspirational trainer who will find himself over the course of the action and the story’s transformation into a working class escapist struggle through the medium of sport (a la Rocky) have all been applied to the narrative in order to pump up the stakes. The reason the eye-gougingly formulaic narrative never becomes grating in spite of both how familiar it is and how increasingly nonsensical the fictitious additions are is because of one thing- sheer likability.
Taron Egerton stars as Eddie Edwards, a socially awkward working class kid with the burning desire to be an Olympian. After various setbacks, a loophole allows him to compete in the 1988 Winter Olympics as the sole member of Britain’s Ski Jumping team, which wasn’t the only unusual competitor in that year’s competition. A radio announcer briefly informs us about a Jamaican bobsleigh team competing, meaning that this same sporting tournament is responsible for two quirky crowd pleasing movies. Of course, its unlikely this will become as beloved as Cool Runnings, even if it is positioning itself as a cross between that film and a working class underdog tale like Billy Elliot.
The screenplay takes the bare bones of this tale and liberally applies cliches to it. First is the inter-family conflict; Keith Allen has the thankless task of playing Eddie’s dad, a man who unrealistically complains that his son isn’t helping his plastering business despite his continued success on the European circuit. It is hard to find this remotely believable, not just because it blatantly wasn’t, but because the film never attempts to make it ring true; there needed to be conflict for the sake of an emotional resolution at the film’s climax.
Surprisingly, the addition of the most overused underdog sports drama cliche, the quasi-mythical mentor with a dark and troubled past, works effectively. It is an understatement that the general public are growing increasingly tired of Hugh Jackman, but here he is cast purely to utilise the sardonic yet sympathetic scorn he gave as Wolverine. Unimaginative casting, but casting that certainly works in the film’s favour; you instantly buy Jackman playing this character archetype to the extent it is barely acknowledged he is responsible for a chunk of the film that is entirely fictitious.
The film does have a strange approach to narrative- the first act is rushed through in the space of ten minutes, eager to get to the imaginary conflicts between athletes and focus on characters made up entirely for a film based on a true life story. It is like director Dexter Fletcher had a yearning desire to put his stamp on old cliches, building the storytelling around sequences that aren’t fundamental to the true life story that marry a genuinely funny comic quirk with uninteresting story elements you’ve seen countless times before.
For example, Eddie is trained to jump by imagining making love to Bo Derek (which includes a scene of vinegar strokes unprecedented in a PG rated film), before the quirkiness is put aside in order for a training montage scored to Hall & Oates “You Make My Dreams”- a music cue so overused Eddie the Eagle announces it has entered the hall of cliche. The very form of the movie seems destined to enter that hall too; the score, by Matthew Margeson, tries to replicate Vangelis’ synth score from Chariots of Fire– itself an underdog sports drama, albeit from the other side of the class divide.
But for every poor directorial decision, be it a soundtrack of over-used 80’s hits or the obvious CGI during the plethora of ski jumping sequences, the film never becomes in the slightest bit patience testing. This is all due to the fact we have a lovable central character who we genuinely want to overcome adversity and succeed. It makes all the time spent in the universe of this film a complete and utter joy- which coming from a person with a crowd pleasing bullshit detector, is possibly the greatest recommendation it could ever receive. Cliches are cliches for a reason after all- when they are used effectively, they can turn a run of the mill story into something warm, engaging and completely delightful. Eddie the Eagle isn’t perfect and won’t be threatening an appearance on any future best of 2016 list- but I’ll be damned if it didn’t charm my socks off.
Eddie the Eagle is released in UK cinemas on April 1.