Finnish biopic “Matti — Hell Is for Heroes” reps a winning portrait of ski-jumping gold medalist and champion screw-up Matti Nykanen (Jasper Paakkonen). Helmer Aleksi Makela (“Bad Boys — A True Story”) transmutes babyfaced Nykanen’s slow descent into alcoholism and later move into pop music into a darkly comic picaresque, more Mewling Veal than “Raging Bull,” with tints of “Boogie Nights” and “Auto Focus” thrown in. Recently released domestically, pic has soared with local auds who remember Nykanen as a national hero, but will have a harder landing beyond Nordic territories, especially given scruffy production values.
Playing, as filmmakers readily admit, fast and loose with the biographical facts, pic’s story covers Matti’s life from the ’80s to the present, told through a quilt of non-chronological scenes stitched together by the hero’s own voiceover. Matti (rising thesp Paakkonen, showing impressive range) is quickly established as an essentially goodhearted but malleable dolt who can be goaded into any foolhardy act of bravery as soon as his masculinity is challenged and he’s gargled enough booze.
Matti’s upright mentor Coach (Juha Veijonen) and his sleezeball best friend Nikke (Peter Franzen, borrowing Sean Penn’s old wig from “Carlito’s Way”) are the angel and devil, respectively, on Matti’s shoulders.
Nevertheless, Matti proves himself quite capable of ruining his own life. His inability to muster even a modicum of self-control undoes his marriage to grasping beauty Taina (Elina Hietala). Fits of star-ego pique see him turning his back on chances to win more medals.
Footage of Matti jumping (some of it from archives showing the real thing) is used only sparingly, laying emphasis more on the sportsman rather than the sport.
Pic’s second half tracks a broke and broken Matti as Nikke connives to exploit Matti’s fame by turning him, briefly, into the lead vocalist in a pop group.
Helmer Makela, who’s made a career so far watching men behave badly, clearly has more empathy than disapproval for his wayward subject, but still introduces more ominous notes by the later stages. Switchbacks between time frames feels occasionally a bit contrived, but solid lead perfs –particularly from Paakkonen, Franzen and Knihtila –are engaging.
Lensed on a mix of 16mm and 35mm with a widescreen ratio, pic has a scratchy, distressed look. Costume and set dressing understate the period setting, while aging make-up is none-too convincingly used, despite the fact the story spans some 20 years.