The new inspirational sports comedy Eddie the Eagle tries to have it both ways with its main subject, simultaneously ridiculing and ennobling him. And, amazingly, it mostly works. It’s the story of Eddie Edwards, a British ski-jumper who won the crowd at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics just for showing up. Britain hadn’t fielded a ski-jumper for decades, and Edwards, slightly heavy and nearsighted, seemed representative of the common man out of his element. But spectators responded to his boyish enthusiasm, and he became a mini-celebrity. In Dexter Fletcher’s new film, Eddie (played by Taron Egerton, whom you may remember as a young, good-looking novice spy saving the world in Kingsman: The Secret Service) is portrayed, at least at first, as a klutzy, adventurous simpleton, falling over himself trying to excel at the right sport — any sport — for his shot at the big time.
Much of Edwards’s story has been exaggerated and enhanced for the film, apparently in an effort to double down on the underdog sports movie clichés: There’s Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), his gruff, alcoholic (and apparently fictional) coach, himself a former jumper with something to prove; there are scheming British Olympic officials, determined to maintain the elite, upper-crust ethos of their team; there’s Eddie’s unsupportive, working-class builder father, to go with his patient, somewhat bemused mother. Even Christopher Walken shows up, briefly, as Bronson’s own former coach, now a kind of guru of international ski jumping. Other athletes and officials chuckle and sneer at Eddie. (“Idiot. The Englishman will die,” one of them says, in subtitles.)
But the film isn’t even trying to pretend to be true to life, or even to teach us a lesson. Fletcher keeps the tone light, having fun with the clichés — with the montages, and the heroic walking shots, and with the broad performances. Jackman is well cast as a bruised, broken stud. Everyone else sneers or smiles as required. Meanwhile, Egerton’s shticky, stylized performance grows on us; we appreciate the character’s delusion, and determination. There’s something very human about someone trying to do something for which they know they’re fundamentally ill-suited, and the film knows how to highlight that humanity. It has fun showing us montages of Eddie crashing early on, but later on, it shows us the vertigo-inducing distance and elevation of the ski-jump; our anticipation mixes with nausea.
The film is simple, maybe even simplistic, but not stupid. Anyone who has ever watched a young child with dreams of sporting glory can recognize the elemental pull of this type of story. But by keeping things simple — by refusing to burden us with too many facts, or too much portent, or complicated characters — Eddie the Eagle channels that spirit well. It won’t win any medals, but it earns its place.