The British director Ken Loach has so often been stereotyped (not unreasonably) as a social realist, that the magical realist aspects of his new film, "Looking for Eric," are initially jarring. It's like introducing a flying saucer into a drama about slum dwellers.
The Eric in question is actually two Erics. Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) is a woebegone postal worker in Manchester, England, whose second wife walked out on him, leaving him with two indolent teenage stepsons. His hero is Eric Cantona, the French-born Manchester United football legend. Bishop's room is festooned with Cantona memorabilia, so it's only natural it should eventually be visited by Mr. Cantona himself – or at least his chimera. The real-life famous footballer, it turns out, is Bishop's imaginary friend, kind of like Jiminy Cricket only much more macho.
Cantona doesn't have a whole lot of screen time, which will dismay football fans but probably matter not a whit to American audiences who probably have never heard of him. He's not much of an actor, but he has a talent for being so forthright that he's comic. When Bishop asks him what he did when he was famously suspended for a time, from football, he answers that he learned to play the trumpet, and whips one out. An awed Bishop tells him, "Sometimes we forget you're just a man," to which Cantona replies, "I am not a man. I am Cantona."
Along with his regular screenwriter, Paul Laverty, Loach has been accused of canceling his social-realist credentials with this film, but you'd have to be pretty humorless to find fault with a director who, for a change, wants to be humorous. The problem is that Loach doesn't really have the knack for comedy. (One of his models here is obviously Woody Allen's "Play it Again, Sam," with Bogart as the imaginary buddy, but what a difference!)
Director Mike Leigh, to whom Loach is sometimes compared, is capable of the utmost realism while also embracing a sense of joy. (See, for example, "Life is Sweet.") Loach strains hard for fun in "Looking for Eric," but he's like a jokester who doesn't know how to tell a joke.
It's no accident that the best parts of "Looking for Eric" are the serious ones, such as the tentative, misbegotten attempts by Bishop to reunite with Lily (Stephanie Bishop), his first wife and only love, whom he abandoned years ago with their baby.
But even in this hard-edged domain, Loach fumbles the ball. The subplot involving Bishop's stepson Ryan (Gerard Kearns), who falls in with a sociopathic gangster, manages the difficult feat of being both lurid and boring; and the way Bishop finally extricates the boy from the mess is so raucously unbelievable that what no doubt was meant to be a crowd-pleasing finale comes across instead as crowd-annoying.
Loach latched onto a good subject, but he doesn't know what to do with it. He's hammerlocked by whimsy. Surely there's a good movie to be made about how sports heroes acquire magical status for their fans. Bishop leads such a mundane life that Cantona functions for him as angelic confessor. Only by rising above his life can he sort it out. For Bishop, having Cantona around is the opposite of insanity. It's the way he makes sense of things.
What "Looking For Eric" demonstrates is that drama, not comedy, is how Loach makes sense of things. On the other hand, I often find his dramas unremittingly bleak. I guess what I'm really saying is that I'm not a big fan of Ken Loach. Grade: C+ (Unrated.)
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