In 2006, British director Ken Loach won Cannes’ top prize with a bracing chronicle of the Irish Republican Army’s struggles against the British in the 1920s. Three years later, he’s come up with a film that couldn’t be more different in tone and subject matter – a lighthearted dramatic comedy about a distraught middle-aged postal worker, Eric Bishop, who gets his groove back by channeling his favorite soccer hero, Eric Cantona, the legendary French star of UK team Manchester United.
Comparisons to Woody Allen’s “Play it Again, Sam” are inevitable, as Cantona magically appears in the postman’s bedroom one day, offering advice along with his trademark aphorisms. Cantona isn’t Bogart, of course, but knowledge of the famous footballer isn’t necessary to enjoy the conceit or the version of himself he plays on screen: A suave macho man who serves a similar spirit-boosting purpose.
Still, Loach and screenwriting partner Paul Laverty continue to work in their familiar social realistic-kitchen sink mode. Bishop lives in a cramped, cluttered multi-level flat, with his step-sons, bad-seed Ryan and the younger black Jess, both of whom appear out of control. His second-wife left him seven years before and he’s never dealt with the fact that he abandoned the first love of his life, Lily, shortly after the birth of their daughter Sam.
But Loach and Laverty choose to depict Bishop’s depression in mostly comic terms: A couple of hilarious early sequences show Bishop’s friends at the post office trying to cheer him up. In an excellent bit, the working class lads – with names like Spleen and Meatballs – turn to corny self-help exercises in order to raise Bishop’s self-esteem. One in which they envision someone they respect – in Bishop’s case, Cantona – is what brings the soccer player into Bishop’s reality.
The film’s heart belongs to the tentative reconciliation between Bishop and Lily, former rock n’ roll dancing partners in their younger years. To the script’s discredit, this emotional resolution happens too easily. On the other hand, an unexpected plot twist involving a handgun and a hundred guys wearing Eric Cantona masks suggests that Loach and Laverty may be just as much interested in the joys of comedy and vindication than the struggles of overcoming past misdeeds.
It’s a refreshing shift from the sometimes overt class-conscious sermonizing found in previous Loach outings; the only scenes that come close to such politics are a debate about a corporate-sponsored soccer team that’s sold out to the highest bidder – still handled humorously – and the fact that poor Bishop is too poor to get tickets to his beloved soccer matches, the one place, he says, where you could “forget all the shit in your life for just a few hours.” It’s a defter handling of social issues than we’ve seen from Loach in a long time.
Indeed, “Looking for Eric” belongs less to the tradition of hard-hitting British dramas that frequent Cannes and increasingly more along the lines of the sort of slight crowd-pleasing fare that does well in U.S. art-houses. And although Cantona may be less known in America than overseas, there’s no denying the comic fun of seeing a burly sportsman put on some rock n’ roll and cut a rug with another man.