Genre-bending postmodern agitprop, or hamfisted hackneyed magic realism? Tom Jennings reckons responses to Looking For Eric depend on how generous you’re feeling
Team Spiritualism. Film review – Tom Jennings
Wayward 1990s footballing genius Eric Cantona pitches a story of friendship between sports legend and fan: veteran director Ken Loach and regular writer Paul Laverty decline. But, attracted by the Frenchman’s renowned refusal to suffer fools – especially those in authority – as well as cheek, artistry, genuine gut socialism and working-class pride, they offer instead a barbed tribute which also requires Cantona to lampoon his own star persona. The result is Looking For Eric, easily Loach’s most light-hearted film despite tackling salient sombre social issues around family and community breakdown and the parallel erosion of the cultural commons. It’s also the first film I’ve seen for some considerable time to receive a sustained round of delighted applause afterwards from a full arthouse crowd. Most in attendance, I’m sure, weren’t Manchester United supporters or even particularly interested in football – though anyone who’s either will enjoy a rare treat – but were simply impressed by an unexpected match of grit and fantasy which, while far clumsier than its celebrity draw ever was, is equally winningly entertaining.
Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) is a Manchester postman whose worship of his Gallic namesake is the sole constant in a life falling apart. A second ex-wife has left behind out-of-control teenage stepsons after he abandoned the first with their newborn twenty years ago, and now guilt and depression are escalating panic attacks into suicidal urges. Loyal workmates led by Meatballs (John Henshaw) rally round with one-liner barrages and ersatz morale-boosting, culminating in a hilarious self-help session evoking a superhero dream-team (or central committee from hell?) of Mandela, Castro, Gandhi, Sinatra and Cantona – but to no avail in Little Eric pulling himself together. Sneaking a spliff for relief, he hallucinates his idol combining gnomic homilies with good sense, but also sincere humility – as in the challenge: “You think my friends are better than yours?” Better yet, his prime motivation was the desire to offer “gifts”, citing his favourite moment as not a goal, but an improvised chipped assist, adding, “You must trust your team-mates. Always”. Thus deriving useful advice from his own subconscious (conveniently undercutting the risk of patronisation), Bishop eventually resolves his libidinal impasse to win back his first love and – helped by massed ranks of posties with bravado-bolstering Cantona masks in a glorious finale – repels the mortal danger posed by neighbourhood psychos his lads were embroiled with.
Excellent committed naturalistic performances carry the film through narrative implausibilities and oversimplifications arising from the awkward juxtaposition of rom-com, urban melodrama and knockabout farce which increasingly threatens to trivialise the baleful situations so carefully contrived. Still, the underlying theme of lost private and public dignity effectively connects alienation, work and pleasure, redirecting humiliation and ridicule away from otherwise abject separate selves now able to resist exploitation, drawing on the social glue of heartfelt joint endeavour. The football metaphor focuses the attention surprisingly well – with a comic interlude deploring its corporate colonisation and namechecking Manchester’s grassroots FC United – if less subtly and satisfyingly than in Walter Salles’ recent allegory of the beautiful game in Linha de Passe (reviewed in Freedom, 8th November 2008). And though the choice of generic formulae may appear strange for a director usually implacably opposed to fanciful whimsy, this too is intelligible in the context of the general failure of post-Thatcher British social realism to avoid backward-looking laments or empty victories disguising defeatism.
The 1990s cinema of working-class uplift encouraged its characters’ surrender to the social forces assailing them – whether Brassed Off’s heritage triumphalism, The Full Monty’s self-commodification, or Billy Elliott’s traditional self-hatred. Recent underclass escapisms like Mischief Night or Shameless[/i] exploit a more soap-operatic open-endedness, leavening gamuts of grim problematics for which individual answers won’t wash with perfectly serious surreal flourishes. Then, crowd-pleasing plot gymnastics furnishing provisional happy endings represent explicit artifice colluding with audience fantasies. In such cases what’s pivotal is the plausibility, coherence and utility of developments among protagonists which make even minor advances conceivable at all. Conversely, Looking For Eric’s wish-fulfilments make it much too easy for Bishop to escape depression, repair his family romance, and overcome the gangsters. Nevertheless the tactics used ring true in all three narrative strands, which themselves only mesh thanks to the overarching daftness of seeking one’s hero within who turns out to be a clown ... But immensely artful with it – which is probably why the final mobilisation of grass-roots forces humiliating the enemy’s narcissism (also nicely foregrounding the dark side of celebrity charisma as well as its achilles heel) is so irresistibly funny.
Loach’s work always has the knack of capturing the benevolence of male working-class culture in hard times – especially in the banter and camaraderie of Riff Raff (1991) and The Navigators (2001) – but the wit often downplays the negativity, isolated instead in flawed individuals in Raining Stones (1993) and My Name Is Joe (1998) or evil outsiders in Sweet Sixteen (2002) and this film. Here too the healing power of friendship is overstated, marginalising women as props for masculinity’s vicissitudes and framing vulnerability and weakness as problems needing abolition rather than basic ingredients of shared solutions. But despite sentimental nostalgia for idealised manifestations of proletarian conviviality, which was always more complex and ambiguous – functioning for regulation and catharsis as well as solidarity and synthesis – the film’s trust in ordinary working folk still retains valuable political valency against the grain of mainstream complacency. On that score, a planned subplot referencing the current Royal Mail privatisation offensive was dropped since it couldn’t be done justice. So celebrating fictional autonomous rank-and-file power outwitting local criminal thugs will have to serve as sly cheerleading for today’s postal-workers in their continuing fight against the official managerial variety. Let’s hope all those applauding this film support that struggle too.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 15, August 2009.