“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch — a very thin one, a daffy but leaden final-third-of-the-show one — that’s been stretched out, for no reason at all, to two hours. It stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as a dreamy-doofus Icelandic pop duo called Fire Saga, who long to compete in (and win) the Eurovision Song Contest, and in theory the film sounds like it could be a successor to “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” or “Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” — another idiot-surreal character study in which Ferrell gets his dork on by playing a strutting but peevish egomaniac who’s a superstar in his own mind.
In reality, it’s a badly shot one-joke movie that sits there and goes thud. “Eurovision Song Contest” is an example of what can happen when Netflix gives too much unsupervised leeway to an artist (as it has several times with Adam Sandler), to the point that the company becomes the artist’s enabler. They’re giving a green light, and a handsome budget, to an idea that needed far more hands-on development to get to a place called funny.
In “Eurovision Song Contest,” the milieu itself seems ripe for comedy. The eccentric Nordic moonscape of Iceland. The Eurovision Song Contest — a cross between “American Idol” and the Olympics, held each year since 1956, that famously put ABBA on the map when they won it with their performance of “Waterloo” on April 6, 1974 (the night the opening scene of the film takes place, as our hero, who’s still a kid, dances to ABBA’s triumph on TV). Ferrell, in long blond hair and a series of terrifyingly ugly sweaters, as Lars Erickssong, an ardent pop-star wannabe who never moved out of his father’s house, even though his dad, Erick (Pierce Brosnan), is a toxic pill who despises singing and his son. Oodles of garish tinfoil costumes, bouncy EDM with bad lyrics sung by decadent Continental warblers, and a ’70s-meets-2020 vibe of kitschy showmanship that should, be all rights, qualify the movie as the “Zoolander” of Europop.
Yet what’s bizarre about “Eurovision Song Contest” is that Ferrell, who cowrote the script with Adam Steele, and the director, David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers”), never quite bothered to figure out the joke. Ferrell as a long-haired loser who speaks in a dippy accent! What an earnest putz! And just look at his costumes! A sweater-coat that looks like a Mondrian painting, a jogging suit of the loudest possible green plaid, a vest made of silver oven-wrap, and a white catsuit that exposes his man-breasts, crotch, and assorted middle-aged bulges (Lars actually makes a point of adding padding to his “ding-dong”).
The trouble is, none of this adds up to a fully baked comedy concept. “Eurovision Song Contest” is mirthless; it’s like an endless wisp derived from other, better Ferrell routines. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that an entire movie had been built around Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer’s high-school music teachers from “SNL” competing in a song contest. I have no idea if that would have worked, but the joke would at least have felt solid: the awesome mild-mannered persnickety squareness of the Culps, matched by their demented geek passion for playing rock songs as if they were classical music. (It could have been the supernerd version of “Pitch Perfect.”)
It’s fine, of course, to have affection for the thing that you’re satirizing, but “Eurovision Song Contest” is so sunny and mindlessly “positive” that the musical-performance sequences are all played relatively straight. It’s as if the filmmakers had thrown up their hands and said, “Europop — it’s funny, no?” Actually, no. There’s one theoretically amusing disaster, when Lars is performing on a giant hamster wheel that Sigrit’s dress gets caught in, but it turns into a lame piece of destruction, as if Dobkin, as terrific a job as he did with “Wedding Crashers,” now couldn’t be bothered to stage an intricate piece of slapstick.
As a duo, Fire Saga keep failing upward through random flukes: Their cassette tape gets plucked out of a box after the Icelandic Song Contest finds itself short one entrant, a horrific accident on a party boat allows them to win the national competition, and then, at the Eurovision Song Contest (filmed in a vast auditorium that looks like the real thing), they squeak into the finals because…well, it’s not even clear. Because there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise. If you’re wondering how all this could last for 123 minutes, it’s because a good chunk of the movie is devoted to the love story of Lars and Sigrit, who have been soulmates since childhood but are so romantically repressed that everyone they meet thinks they’re brother and sister.
At the Eurovision Song Contest, which in the movie is being held in Edinburgh, Scotland, Sigrit has to fend off the advances of the Russian competitor, Alexander, a hard-partying hipster oligarch in a smoking jacket played by Dan Stevens as a sleazy player who actually isn’t a bad dude. McAdams is never less than winning, but her character, as written, doesn’t have a single defining trait beyond the fact that she believes in elves (which Lars does not — a source of tension between the two that is also, perhaps, a lame stab at an in-joke). What the film needed to make the audience believe in was the glorious but undeniably absurd power of pop music to turn night into day, and heartbreak into rapture. But in “Eurovision Song Contest,” even when the film should soar, its song remains the same.