With its uplifting message sagging under a half-baked screenplay and a cheeseball soundtrack, it feels like we’re being offered a reflexive, feature-length apology.
Late in Eddie the Eagle, a paint-by-numbers biopic directed by Dexter Fletcher, there’s a passing reference to the Jamaican bobsled team that once inspired Cool Runnings. This wink to the 1993 Disney comedy connect it to Eddie the Eagle in two ways, though only one is intentional. Both movies are, by a happy fluke of history, inspirational underdog stories that culminate at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Less happily for those responsible for Eddie the Eagle, both films also rise to the middling quality of Disney’s live-action fodder. Fletcher’s picture, which debuted at Sundance in January, is being touted as a heartwarming indie darling, a spiritual successor to much better films such as Little Miss Sunshine and Billy Elliot. But like the athleticism of its titular subject, Eddie the Eagle is passable at best.
Our lovable hero Eddie Edwards, played with a vague kind of awkwardness by Taron Egerton, is an aspiring Olympian from the start. The particular sporting category with which he’ll represent Great Britain on the world stage remains fluid for some time. As a child, Edwards unsuccessfully dabbles in track and field — he stumbles across hurdles, tosses javelins into windows — and finally settles on a winter sport, ski jumping, as his entryway into the Games. His goal isn’t excellence at the discipline, but to merely qualify for the Winter Olympics. Eddie knows his natural limitations, which include a puffy body and longsighted vision. To compete at the Olympics, he just needs to get his ski-clad foot in the door by any means necessary.
He succeeds in that regard, of course, by exploiting a loophole in the British Olympic Association’s rulebook, and then by miraculously overcoming the many roadblocks placed in front of him. The bulk of Eddie the Eagle dramatizes — clumsily and with the depth of a puddle — Edwards’ highly fictionalized path to Calgary. Eddie decamps to Germany early on, with the moral support of his mother alone, to train down ever-more-imposing slopes. Along the way he meets Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman, here a masculine caricature and unrepentant ham), a former world-class ski jumper turned disgraced drunk, who will become his reluctant mentor and coach. And so, Bronson’s redemption hangs on Eddie’s success, particularly in the eyes of his own former mentor (Christopher Walken).
All but one of Eddie’s competitors, and the entirety of the Olympic establishment, dismiss him as a bumbling amateur — and who can blame them? Depending on the scene, he alternately seems like a total natural or a complete incompetent. At its best, Eddie the Eagle champions the egalitarian foundation of the Olympics, at least in its original conception (cue Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”). But it ultimately amounts to three booming cheers for barely clearing the bar, a celebration of mediocrity. There’s nothing wrong with that as such. The problem is, the movie is even less skillful than poor Eddie, a failure to its theme. As it wears on, with its uplifting message sagging under a half-baked screenplay and a cheeseball soundtrack, it feels like we’re being offered a reflexive, feature-length apology. Eddie the Eagle aims for the bronze and comes up way short. Like its protagonist, a participation award is all it has to show for the effort.