Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Loach's Looking for Eric

If Americans were as passionate about soccer (henceforth referred as football) as we are about our “football” and David Beckham had come to Los Angeles at the absolute peak of his game, it would approximate the excitement generated when French football sensation Eric Cantona joined Leeds United. However, it was his time with Manchester United shortly thereafter that cemented Cantona’s reputation, earning him legions of local blue collar fans. One particular fan draws special inspiration from Cantona in Ken Loach’s surprisingly lighthearted Looking for Eric (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Eric Bishop tries to do right by his daughter from his first wife and the two step-sons ex-wife number two left with him, but he is quickly unraveling. Prone to panic attacks, even his mates at the post office start to notice he is in danger of going postal when a nasty looking (but relatively harmless) traffic accident briefly lands him in hospital. While well-intentioned, their new age self-help intervention is not very helpful. Just as Bishop is about to hit rock bottom, he comes face-to-face with his new spirit guide: his idol, Eric Cantona.

Cantona (played by the footballer himself) helps Bishop work through his issues of self-confidence and trust with insight gleaned throughout his storied playing career. Screenwriter Paul Laverty shrewdly revisits illustrative highlights from Cantona’s career whose significance will not be lost on American audiences, while surely bringing back floods of memories for Manchester United fans.

Essentially, Looking roughly approximates the template of Play It Again Sam, but Bishop is a far more down-to-earth protagonist and his problems are much more serious. In fact, Loach frequently shifts the film’s tone, alternating between good-natured comedy with Cantona, wistful romance as Bishop tentatively pursues his first wife, and the grittily realistic drama involving the nihilistic gangster with his hooks in Bishop’s eldest step-son. Yet, his transitions are always fluid and never jarring.

Though many of Loach’s previous films are highly ideological and class conscious, here he displays a welcomed lighter touch, while retaining his affinity for his working class characters. Indeed, as Bishop, Steve Evets creates a memorable portrait of a harried everyman, perfectly balancing pathos and comedy. At least convincing as himself, Cantona also shows flashes of the eccentric charisma that made him a media and fan favorite.

More than just an ode to British football, Looking is an unexpectedly endearing film about the big universals of life, including family, friends, love, and redemption. Easily accessible to a wide American audience, it has the right ingredients to become a hit beyond the typical art-house circuit. It opens in New York this Friday (5/14) at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.