Onside with Eric

Looking for Eric is not a comedy exactly, but it is Ken Loach’s lightest, happiest film for some time.

Written by Loach’s long-time collaborator Paul Laverty, this is a wacky if erratic and self-conscious buddy movie about a depressed middle-aged postman and Manchester United fan called Eric Bishop (Steve Evets), who suffers a breakdown brought on by family troubles and an immoderate consumption of his stepson’s weed supply.

In this fragile, delusional condition he is visited by his great, barrel-chested, monobrowed hero, Eric Cantona, King Eric — who is played, as it says in the credits, by “lui-même”.

Poor Eric Bishop is in a right state. He is twice divorced and stuck with looking after the errant stepchildren from his second failed marriage. The grown-up daughter from his first has just made him a granddad and it is only when he agrees to mind the baby every afternoon before handing it over to his first wife, Lily, played by Stephanie Bishop, that he realises he is still in love with her.

This is a man in dire need of life coaching. A visit from Sir Alex Ferguson, with his “hairdryer” pep talks, might have been too harsh. Fortunately, he is advised by a man with a finer and more sympathetic sense of philosophy, manhood and l’amour. King Eric therapeutically listens to Eric’s troubles and dishes out advice and plenty of those extraordinary pensées. He even gets Eric to stop sipping lager and try a little wine.

Looking for Eric is a film that touches on one of the great tragedies of life: that it can never attain the perfection, and importance, of sport. If only our chaotic and unsatisfactory lives could achieve its clarity; if only our sporting heroes could help us. Loach fans will remember Brian Glover’s legendary fantasy football commentary sequence from Kes, and, for me, the film also brought back happy memories of Jack Rosenthal’s 1982 TV film, P’Tang Yang Kipperbang, with a teenage cricket fanatic hearing the growling voice of John Arlott in his head.

Laverty and Loach must have been inspired also by Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam, in which a nerdy film buff gets romantic advice from Humphrey Bogart. The difference is that Allen did not actually have Bogart, whereas Loach has the great Cantona himself in his starting line-up.

That is perhaps a problem. The whole film seems overexcited and overawed by Cantona’s authentic presence. When he delivered his famous line at the press conference about the trawler and the sardines (nostalgically reprised over the final credits) he did it with glacial slowness, so that reporters would not miss a word. Now Cantona has different ideas about delivery.

As he is a fully fledged legend, professional actor and indeed this film’s executive producer, it can’t be easy, even for Loach, to tell him how to speak the dialogue or play himself. So Cantona is allowed to throw his lines away: he gabbles them, he burbles them, he murmurs them, as it were, into his upturned collar. Sometimes he speaks French, sometimes English in a heavy accent, and it isn’t easy to tell which is which.

But this is real Cantona, organic Cantona, Cantona unplugged. If his line readings are a little eccentric, well … what of it? He always has a mischievous twinkle, a cheeky touch of self-satire, mixed in with his unfaked and unfakable amour propre. When the awed Bishop asks Cantona what he did during his suspension, and Cantona replies that he learned the trumpet, and proceeds to take one out and play, it is a gloriously surreal moment.

The part of Eric Bishop is also interesting casting. Evets is a jobbing performer and former musician who is one of those many people who were once in The Fall and, like so many, fell out with lead singer Mark E Smith. He doesn’t look like an actor, with actorish mannerisms; he seems like a real, likable guy with real emotions, and his perennial stunned expression of “what-am-I-doing-here-and-what-is-going-on?” is very appropriate.

My problem with Looking for Eric is the uneasy lurch it takes into darker dramatic territory. One of Bishop’s stepsons gets involved with a dodgy gangster and psychopathic bully: it’s a connection that leads to ugly, tense scenes and a terrifying police raid. All through this bleaker stretch, Cantona is entirely absent from the film, and this will be disappointing for those King Eric fans who might assume he was going to be on the field for the full 90 minutes.

Bishop finally comes up with a plan to subdue the gangster, a plan that in the real world would not work for one moment, and there is an odd, almost childishly naive feel to the film at this point. Considering that Loach is rightly celebrated as a master of social realism, this is very unreal. But then again, once you’ve got Cantona popping up and giving life lessons, maybe realism isn’t the main priority.

Looking for Eric isn’t a Loach masterpiece, but it’s great fun and is set fair to be his first commercial smash since Kes. No one would begrudge him a well-earned box-office hit from such an amiable film. —

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