One of the observations that Pauline Kael made in her notorious 1980 pan of “Heaven’s Gate” was that John Hurt spent the entire film taking swigs from a flask too small to hold enough liquor to make a sparrow tipsy. She might have added that it never went dry, however often he drank from it. It appears that the bottomless flask has passed to Hugh Jackman’s Bronson Peary, the has-been, alcoholic ski jumper who, in “Eddie the Eagle,” becomes a reluctant coach to Brit Michael “Eddie” Edwards, the energetic amateur who strove to win a spot as his country’s representative in that sport at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary—and managed, against all odds, to do so, earning international celebrity for his enthusiasm, if not for his prowess, in the process.
Of course, such a bottomless flask is a fantasy. But then so is Bronson Peary, a totally made-up character. And so is most of the picture, which even Edwards has suggested is only 10-15% accurate. As written by Sean Macauley and Simon Kelton and directed by Dexter Fletcher, this is a formulaic feel-good sports movie about a hapless underdog who overcomes obstacle after obstacle to win a moral victory, if not one for the record books. Some viewers might well appreciate having access to one of those fantasy flasks while watching it; a bit of booze—or more—might help.
Nonetheless, for what it is—which isn’t much—this fanciful retelling of Edwards’ achievement pushes all the proper buttons. We’re introduced to him as nerdy, bespectacled lad with bad knees—played successively by Tom and Jack Costello—who badgers his working-class parents, a supportive mom (Jo Hartley) and irascible father (Keith Allen) with his Olympic dreams. He learns to ski in order to join the British team, but the officious fellows in charge of the country’s Olympic effort toss him off the squad because of his irrepressible klutziness.
Still, that doesn’t long dampen the hopes of Edwards, now played by Taron Egerton as an overweight doofus who squints a lot while his lower lip quivers uncontrollably. He discovers that Britain has been without a representative in the ski-jump since 1929, and determines to learn the sport posthaste to qualify. Soon he’s off to Garmisch, Germany, where enormous ramps are available to contenders like the contemptuous Finnish squad that includes the current world’s champion, oddly intense Matti Nykanen (Edvin Endre). Eddie finds a friend in a restaurateur (Iris Berben) who takes him on as a waiter, and eventually a coach of sorts in Peary, a erstwhile star on the U.S. team who was dismissed from it by legendary coach Warren Sharp (Christopher Walken) for his recklessness and bravado—and now plows the practice field back into shape after skiers have messed it up.
Peary initially rejects Edwards’ pleas to teach him, but eventually relents if only to get the fellow off his back. Of course, his instruction allows Eddie to at least jump the smaller ramps, and to qualify for the games—though only barely. But while his jumps are hardly championship quality, Eddie’s sheer exuberance about managing them at all earns the initially dismissive spectators to become loudly supportive, and soon even the British broadcast commentator (Jim Broadbent) has joined them. Eddie is soon a fan (and press) favorite, much to the chagrin of the British Olympic officials, who try unsuccessfully to quash his popularity. But Eddie outfoxes them by deciding to take on the biggest challenge of all—the 90-meter ramp, which he’s never even jumped before. His performance is no more than mediocre, but the crowd explodes with pleasure, and even old Sharp appears to confirm that Peary’s role in Edwards’ triumph has redeemed his former student in his eyes.
There’s a pat quality to all this that recalls lots of previous movies, including “Cool Runnings,” Jon Turteltaub’s surprise 1993 hit about the unlikely success of the Jamaican bobsled team in the same 1988 games. But “Eddie the Eagle” minimizes the effect by basically acknowledging its indebtedness to such past crowd-pleasers; there’s even a brief mention of the Jamaicans at one point, as if to admit an important model. And though both Egerton and Jackman play their parts to the hilt, they make a fairly agreeable team, abetted by a supporting cast of accomplished British farceurs like Broadbent and Allen, who help to make even the worst of the clichés go down relatively easily. (Walken’s patented oddity adds a touch of weirdness to the close, too.) The physical production is hardly cutting-edge, but cinematographer George Richmond manages some exciting POV jump shots on the ramps. (There are plenty of disastrous landings, too.)
“Eddie the Eagle” doesn’t soar, but apart from a couple of mildly suggestive moments it can serve as a harmless piece of uplifting family entertainment. One wonders, though, whether in other hands it might have been something more interesting—a study of dangerously reckless ambition rather than childlike enthusiasm, a sports-themed cousin of “The King of Comedy.” (The fact that the Edwards seems to have been a rara avis in lots of ways might have invited such an approach.) Of course, fashioning something like that would demand a degree of artistic aspiration that seems beyond the makers of this inoffensive but trivial movie.