No prior knowledge of either English soccer or one of its greatest stars of the ’90s, French-born Eric Cantona, is necessary to go “Looking for Eric.” But helmer Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty’s ninth feature together is a curious hybrid: Three movies — boilerplate, socially aware Loach; personal fantasy; romantic comedy — wrap around a central core of a hopeless soccer fanatic who’s given a second chance to sort out his life. As in many of Laverty’s scripts, problems of overall tone and character development aren’t solved by Loach’s easygoing direction, though when it works, “Eric” has many incidental pleasures.
How many fans of the now-retired Cantona (who co-exec produced and initiated the project) will turn out to see a Loach pic, especially in Blighty, remains a moot point, especially when word gets out that the Manchester United icon is only in a few scenes. But with smart marketing, this could reach fractionally beyond the usual Loach demographic. Stateside chances are more questionable given Cantona’s lack of U.S. profile.
Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) is a fortysomething Manchester postal worker who returns home from the hospital (after a car crash) to find the place, and his life, in chaos, as usual. His two layabout stepsons, Ryan (Gerard Kearns) and Jess (Stefan Gumbs), show him no respect. And his wife, Lily (Stephanie Bishop), who left him seven years ago, won’t talk to him, despite the efforts of their grown daughter, Sam (Lucy-Jo Hudson).
His work colleagues (also avid Manchester United fans), led by portly Meatballs (John Henshaw, good), try to cheer him up. But then one night, while getting high in his bedroom, Eric is “visited” by another Eric, his all-time idol Cantona.
Given that this is a Loach movie, Cantona’s appearance is handled in an entirely natural way, sans vfx, though it’s economically made clear that the onetime soccer star is a figment of Eric’s dopey imagination. As the two get to know each other, the ooh-la-la Frenchman starts giving advice to Eric on how to get back with Lily, his first, teenage love (shown in flashbacks) for whom Eric has never lost his devotion.
Dialogue during the two men’s heart-to-hearts cleverly plays on Cantona’s rep for straight-talking — “She has big balls!” he exclaims about Lily — and he and Evets show the relaxed chemistry of opposites bound by a shared obsession in their scenes together.
There’s a similar warmth — heightened by Loach regular Barry Ackroyd’s sunnier lensing — in the sequences of Eric cautiously restarting his relationship with Lily. Loach has always drawn good perfs from his female leads — one thinks of Eva Birthistle in “Ae Fond Kiss … ” or Kierston Wareing in “It’s a Free World … ” In Bishop, he’s found another thesp who brings some much-needed estrogen to a basically male-dominated movie, as a still-attractive woman who would also like to give things a second chance but remains realistically suspicious.
In many respects, the wryly humorous Eric-Lily sections are the best parts of the movie and could easily have formed a complete pic given the wealth of background between the two. (Hudson as their grown daughter is also very simpatico.) But in an obvious contrivance to supply a third act, the script veers off into a disorienting subplot involving Ryan, a gun and some lowlifes.
This eventually leads to a crowd-pleasing finale involving Eric, Meatballs and the whole gang of Manchester United supporters that stresses a favorite Loach theme of the collective being stronger than the individual. Again, the bit is enjoyable but further jars the pic’s search for an overarching tone.
Though nowhere near as hard to decipher as that in the Loach-Laverty Scottish-set films, the dialogue here, with its Mancunian inflections, could cause some problems for Stateside viewers. Script also is unnecessarily littered with strong cussing.