Friends Less Ordinary

Ken Loach makes harrowing social commentaries about the dismal fates of disenfranchised working-class Brits. He means Looking for Eric to be a change of pace, describing it as a “warm, bittersweet comedy,” although I fail to see anything in it that I’d describe as cuddly or amusing. It’s about a Manchester postman named Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) whose miserable life is on a downhill spiral-a second marriage in shreds; two good-for-nothing stepsons who hate and insult him; and a lovesick memory of the first wife he walked out on 20 years earlier and never got over. The only bright spots in the mundane life of this unhappy sod are his mates at the post office and his passion for the Manchester United soccer team-especially his idol, French-born footballer Eric Cantona. The downtrodden Eric starts reading some of the retired sport star’s armchair philosophy as well as a few self-help books his pals bring him from the library, and with Cantona’s odd advice on love to inspire him, life takes on a rosier hue. He and his pals form a group in which they see themselves through the eyes of someone they love unconditionally. One of them, for example, sees himself through the eyes of Sammy Davis Jr. Or, as his friend Meatballs says in a lighter moment, “through one of them.” These are the jokes, and they are rare.

Eric can’t think of anyone he admires except Cantona, and before you can Asay “goal post,” Cantona appears as his imaginary mentor. He is suddenly everywhere-swapping tips on how to cope with depression, jogging with him to build stamina, listening patiently to his memories of happier days. Cantona plays himself and even supplied the idea for the film. It’s a small, gimmicky idea for an even smaller film, but it’s not without its limited charms. The footballer can’t act, but newsreel footage shows some of his best moves on the playing field, and he even gives a shaky demonstration of playing the trumpet. As the hero worship draws Bishop out of his shell and brings a suicidal man at the end of his rope back into the light, the plot makes a vague effort to thicken beyond gruel into something more substantial.

There are two touching relationships in the film-the imaginary one between Eric Bishop and Eric Cantona, and the actual one between Bishop and his ex-wife, Lily (making things more confusing because she is played by an actress whose real name is Stephanie Bishop). Lily appears first in youthful flashbacks and then reenters his life unexpectedly to share the child care of their granddaughter while their grown daughter tries to better herself with a college degree. Their scenes together, when they try to piece together what went wrong in their marriage, are the film’s highlights. Unfortunately, these quiet moments clash with the less successful subplot about hoodlums luring Eric’s sons into crime-jarring, melodramatic contrasts involving vicious dogs, kidnapping and gunplay. In one harrowing scene, the police raid the house in the middle of dinner and drag the whole family away in custody, including the baby. Clearly, to save Eric’s kids from the gangsters, Cantona has to come up with his best advice, and it’s the entire post office to the rescue in a scene inspired by the Keystone Kops.

It’s hard to know what to make of this odd little film. Mr. Loach is a respected director in the U.K., but he can’t do funny. None of the actors have much experience in front of the camera, but under his direction, they emerge real and conversational-except Mr. Cantona, who spouts wooden clichés with arched mumbles. “It’s funny, i’n’t it? Sometimes we forget you’re just a man.” “I am not a man! I am Cantona!” Never mind. He can’t project dialogue beyond his upper lip, and with his musty French accent, rarely uttered above a muffled whisper, he needs subtitles. None of this will probably mean much to American audiences, who have likely never heard of Eric Cantona. But despite disastrous reviews in London, Looking for Eric is not a total loss. It’s about low-rent failures who survive by finding optimism through humor and friendship. It’s uneven, but its optimistic message-lost causes can find strength through friendship and bonding-is contagious.

Running time: 116 minutes
Written by: Paul Laverty
Directed by: Ken Loach
Starring: Steve Evets, Eric Cantona, Stephanie Bishop

3 Eyeballs out of 4

  Friends Less Ordinary