Move “Play It Again Sam” from Manhattan to Manchester, replace Humphrey Bogart with soccer player Eric Cantona and exchange Woody Allen’s wit for Ken Loach’s working-class ethos and you’ve got “Looking for Eric.” If that sounds like a strange brew, it is—however well-intentioned, this is one of the talented but variable Loach’s weaker efforts. But it’s not entirely without its moments.
Steve Evets stars as Eric Bishop, a sad-sack post-office worker who, as the picture begins, has a car crash. It’s only the latest in his troubles. His marriage to Lily (Stephanie Bishop) ended years before, and he still pines over her. And his stepsons Ryan (Gerard Kearns) and Jess (Stefan Gumbs), who live with him, take advantage of him mercilessly. Even his pub pals poke fun at him.
Fortunately Bishop gets some help from an apparition when his soccer idol, former Manchester star Eric Cantona (playing himself), shows up to offer advice. And it proves very useful in helping him reconnect with Lily, who—as we see in some nice flashbacks—he’s loved from their first meeting at a dance hall.
There’s considerable charm in the awkward Bishop’s interaction with Lily and their university-student daughter Sam (Lucy-Jo Hudson) and her baby. And his scenes with his friends at the pub have a gruff sense of camaraderie characteristic of the director’s working-class interests.
But the turn that the picture takes in the final reels seems altogether too calculated to give it a socio-political message. Randy gets involved with local thugs, and when Bishop tries to extricate the boy from their clutches, he’s humiliated. That leads his pals to concoct an elaborate mob action to show the thugs that “the people” won’t tolerate such abuse—and they even make use of that most democratic of modern devices, YouTube, to prove their point. It all seems a stretch designed to promote Loach’s leftist leanings, and not a very convincing one.
That wouldn’t be a problem, perhaps, if the earlier portions of the film hadn’t gone to considerable lengths to maintain a gritty, authentic working-class mood, in spite of the conceit involving Cantona. The sheer implausibility of what happens at the end shatters that.
Still, up to that point “Looking for Eric” is an intriguing portrait of a down-to-earth fellow struggling against the odds to construct a decent domestic life for himself. Evets makes him a put-upon little man one can root for, and the rest of the cast exhibit the naturalness that Loach is a past master at eliciting from his actors. And cinematographer Barry Ackroyd is certainly adept in capturing an authentic feel in visual terms.
Ultimately, though, the picture, like some of Loach’s other films, simply tries too hard to dramatize the sense of solidarity that he obviously feels strongly about in political and economic terms. Unhappily, that undermines what’s otherwise a pretty decent character study.