Feint of heart
If the name Eric Cantona means little to you, a quick primer is in order before you settle into your seat for this movie. Cantona was a French-born British soccer star, a center forward for Manchester United, and on the strength of this film’s telling, one of the greatest ever to lace on a pair of cleats. Cantona is also the executive producer of this movie, so that deck might be a little stacked.
But the film offers a montage of Cantona’s greatest hits, a highlight reel of brilliant kicks and headers rocketed past flummoxed goaltenders, in support of this claim. In any case you need to know the stature of the man who shares the movie’s title to appreciate how he functions in this story; otherwise it’s like screening a movie about John Elway to a roomful of Belgians.
There are two Erics in this picture. The other one is Eric Bishop (Steve Evets), a sad-sack, middleaged Manchester postal worker and die-hard football (as the rest of the world parochially calls soccer) fan. As the movie begins, he is driving the wrong way in a roundabout in a depressive stupor before crashing and winding up in the hospital.
He’s not wrong to be depressed. His life sucks. Bishop lives in a dreary little Manchester row
house with a couple of sullen teenage stepsons, the detritus of a collapsed marriage. He’s long estranged from his first love, Lily (Stephanie Bishop), whom he abandoned in a panic attack upon the birth of their daughter, Sam (Lucy-Jo Hudson), now a grown woman with a baby of her own. When Sam asks him to coordinate babysitting with Lily while she goes to classes, Bishop’s guilt and regret overwhelm him.
His mates try to buck him up. Laughter being the best medicine, they rally him with jokes. His pal Meatballs (John Henshaw) convenes an intervention and reads aloud from an inspirational self-help manual. One of the book’s profound suggestions is that they each look at themselves through the eyes of someone they hold in high esteem. As they go around the group, names like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are put into play. Meatballs picks Old Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra. Bishop’s choice is Eric Cantona, “the greatest footballer who ever lived.”
He has a poster of the youthful Cantona up on the wall of his bedroom, a strutting, confident figure, head raised in heroic triumph, jersey collar turned up with cocky insouciance. Bishop has always talked to his virtual Cantona, turning up his own collar and running observations and questions by him, asking for help in the abstract, rhetorical way we do with our idols and gods.
But now Cantona answers. Like Humphrey Bogart in Woody Allen’s
Play It Again, Sam, Cantona becomes a presence, an oracle, a personal deity. (“I am not a man. I am Cantona.”) Lounging on the bed in Bishop’s room — older, heavier, and bearded — he dispenses nuggets of wisdom and advice like a Gallic fortune cookie (“He who is afraid to throw the dice will never throw a six.”).
Together they work on putting Bishop’s tattered life back in order physically (they jog) and emotionally (rapprochement with Lily). There’s also a real mess to sort out involving the association of one of his loutish teenagers with a local hoodlum.
Cantona — King Eric to his fans — is equal to the task. “It all started with a beautiful pass” is a quote from Cantona that fronts the film. In one of their heart-to-hearts in his bedroom, Bishop asks his imaginary best friend and mentor what the highlight of his career was. It wasn’t a game-winning goal, Cantona replies. It was an assist, a pass. And the assist he is giving Bishop here is what this comedy is all about. “You have to trust your teammates,” he tells his pupil. “Always. Otherwise you are lost.”
Trusting teammates figures large in the movie’s endgame, and trust and commitment are the essentials that play into the resolution of the love story as well. In the hands of Ken Loach, the director of such gritty fare as Kes, Sweet Sixteen, and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, all this warmhearted satisfaction is roughed up with a heavy grade of sandpaper, but the end result is sweet, satisfying, and sometimes very funny.
Like Humphrey Bogart
in Woody Allen’s ‘Play It Again, Sam,’ Eric Cantona becames a presence, an oracle,
a personal deity.
The motley crew of buddies, played by a passel of Manchester stand-up comedians, is a distinctive and amusing lot, and Evets does a great job in the lead. He’s a man who wears his years hard and can work elements like despair, hope, feistiness, and hero worship in a compelling mix. (That last name, by the way, is his first name spelled backward; it’s the first thing he thought of, he says, when he had to choose a stage name.) Cantona delivers a relaxed and gently self-mocking performance in the role described in the end credits as lui-meme. A word of warning: Loach’s films, with their heavy British regional dialects, can be hard on the American ear. And here that ear is required to adjust constantly between the Lancashire of one Eric and the French accent of the other.
Loach is a passionate football fan, and Looking for Eric opens here as the 2010 World Cup heats up in South Africa. Despite the classic miscue against Team USA by England’s goaltender in the opening game, this movie offers a ray of sunshine for British soccer and a good time for American movie audiences.
Blow it like Cantona: Eric Cantona, left, and Steve Evets