Blessed with pride, power and an ability to affably take a lot of crap off of everybody, British ski jumper Michael “Eddie” Edwards was one of several improbable figures to emerge as folk heroes after losing badly at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games. The others, of course, were the four men on the Jamaican bobsled team, and if director Dexter Fletcher’s loose adaptation of Edwards’ story often seems content to mimic “Cool Runnings” beat for beat, at least it picks a bar it can safely clear. Never quite nailing the off-kilter vibe it sporadically seems to seek, but functioning reasonably well as a quirkily inspirational shaggy-dog biopic, “Eddie the Eagle” has no real chance of medaling at the box office. But its cute flourishes and gamely broad performances from Taron Egerton (as Edwards) and Hugh Jackman (as his fictional coach) could make it a sentimental success for family audiences.
Recognizable by his thick glasses, blonde mustache and untraditionally athletic stature, Edwards responded to his elimination from Britain’s downhill-ski team by taking up ski jumping, a sport whose last British representative competed back in 1929. Lacking any competition from his homeland, Edwards not only qualified for the Calgary Olympics while still essentially a novice, but also managed to attract huge amounts of publicity and “noble failure” fandom from his two last-place finishes, much to the horror of the sport’s purists. Edwards’ story is better known in the U.K. than Stateside, and though “Eddie the Eagle” takes rather enormous liberties with its real-life inspiration, the rough outlines survive intact.
In the film’s first reel, we see the young Edwards (played as a child by Tom Costello and Jack Costello) as a lifelong Olympics obsessive forever in search of a sport to pursue. Eventually he settles on skiing, to the annoyance of his working-class father (Keith Allen), who wants little Eddie to follow in the family plastering business. But when the twentysomething Edwards (Egerton) is cut from the Olympic ski team by a punctilious official (Mark Benton), he’s once again forced to redirect his dreams, and impulsively heads off to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, to try his feet at ski jumping.
Twisting his torso into unusual angles and affecting a huge underbite, Egerton plays Edward as such a childlike innocent — teetotaling, guileless, edgeless, sexless — that he sometimes appears less a man-child than an actual child. (In one of the numerous jokey setups that the film introduces without following through with an actual punchline, Edwards is propositioned by a hot-to-trot German bar owner, played by Iris Berben, and he responds with a mixture of terror and utter incomprehension.) It’s enough to make him a bit much to take in the early going, but the performance becomes far more palatable with the introduction of its opposite: the grizzled Jackman as Bronson Peary, a onetime ski-jump hotshot now reduced to driving a snowplow in Garmisch, his hip-flask always at the ready.
Initially annoyed by the hapless interloper, Peary is predictably worn down by Edwards’ earnestness and willingness to hurl himself down the ramp without any idea what he’s doing, and agrees to become his unorthodox trainer. (Among his teachings: a lengthy comparison of the takeoff to sex, which gives Jackman a chance to go full Meg Ryan to illustrate.) Meanwhile the other ski jumpers in town, especially the nudity-loving Norwegian team and the frosty Finnish superstar Matti Nykanen (Edvin Endre), shower the two with disdain. (Intriguingly, the real-life Nykanen and Edwards would both go on to release Finnish-language pop songs within months of one another in the early 1990s, one of several cases in which the facts of Edwards’ actual life prove far funnier and more surreal than any of the the fictional details cooked up by the film’s screenwriters.)
Overlong complications ensue, but by the time the film finally gets Edwards to the Olympics, the pace picks up substantially. For a figure from the 1980s, Edwards was a thoroughly 21st-century type of celebrity, the sort of “regular guy” viral sensation whose popularity suggested more than a hint of condescension. At its best, “Eddie the Eagle” also tries to grapple with Edwards’ position in the sport: Was Eddie ultimately just a sideshow, stealing the brief, quadrennial spotlight from more talented athletes who spent their whole lives training for it? Or was his commitment in the face of preordained failure an example of the sort of amateur spirit that the modern games had begun to lose? The film may come down on the latter side with sledgehammer certainty, but at least it briefly entertains the question.
The pic gets quite a lot of mileage out of several note-perfect musical choices — Matthew Margeson’s cheeky synth score could have been taken from a number of 1980s ski-ploitation pics, while soundtrack appearances from Thin Lizzy and Hall & Oates couldn’t be better employed — and Fletcher includes just enough odd angles and quirky compositions to suggest a slightly stranger, loopier vision for this film lurking somewhere beneath. The director also does effective work to emphasize the danger of Edwards’ jumps, whether by framing the 90-meter ramp like Godzilla looming in the distance, or splicing in some vertiginous first-person views from a newly airborne jumper.