No one films hangout sessions like Ken Loach. Don’t let the English director’s killjoy social realism throw you: More than half his combined oeuvre—and almost all of The Navigators and Sweet Sixteen —is dedicated to working-class lugs shooting the shit, getting into mischief and enjoying each other’s company.
So when Looking For Eric, Loach’s 23rd feature in five decades, is described as a “break,” it’s worth asking: From what? All-out serious films, like his Palme d’Or-nabbing IRA saga The Wind That Shakes the Barley, are oddities on a serious-but-not- that -serious resume.
What’s throwing people off, apparently, is the high-concept premise. Steve Evets plays Eric, a postal worker in turmoil. His ex-wife (Stephanie Bishop) is tenuously back in his life and his son is running with the wrong crowd. Despondent, he wills into semi-existence the man on the posters covering his bedroom walls: retired footballer Eric Contana. Through a thick French accent and complete lack of screen presence, the famously philosophical former Manchester U forward offers sage advice to the other Eric, building his self-esteem and playing sounding board to his rhapsodies on football.
So far, so cute. But that gun Eric’s son has hiding under the floor boards? It belongs to a local psychopath, and when he comes calling, this so-called trifle threatens to turn as serious as any of the director’s films. Most never thought they’d see a Play It Again, Sam, in which people cry and beg for their lives.
This mixture of tones isn’t atypical in a Loach film; many could be described as genuinely enjoyable with (often unnecessarily) downer endings. Even with the goofy plot conceit, the main reason Eric throws you off is because one minute the two Erics are mucking about in a field, the next thugs are shoving a pistol in our poor schlub hero’s face.
Eric's exploration of the fissure between fantasy and kitchen-sink realism is clumsy, but most is forgiven by the end. The climax, featuring improbable retribution carried out by dozens of middle-aged football fans in Eric Contana masks, makes the fantastical, at long last, fun.
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