When I say jump: Ken Loach's Looking for Eric sees the director taking a lighter approach to one man's misery.

Looking for Comedy in Ken Loach's 'Eric'

Dennis Harvey May 28, 2010

Looking for Eric has been described as “Ken Loach’s new comedy,” a statement that would raise eyebrows even if it were accurate. It would be accurate, however, to say Looking for Eric can be considered a comedy…in comparison to just about any other Ken Loach movie you could name.

After all, this is the man who’s been cinema’s king of British miserabilism for a good four decades now, offering grainy, gritty portraits of mostly bleak working-class life. Contemporaries like Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh (both of whom started a little later, and primarily on TV) eventually “went Hollywood” on occasion or at least accepted a bigger budget for larkier projects (like Leigh’s Gilbert & Sullivan tale Topsy Turvy). Not Loach–from earliest underclass explorations like 1967’s Poor Cow and 1969’s Kes to 2007’s foreign-labor capitalist critique It’s a Free World, he’s seldom backed an inch away from treating thorny social or political issues with unsparing sobriety. Even a rare period venture like the acclaimed The Wind That Shakes the Barley, about Irish Republicans in 1920, is not Merchant-Ivory pretty but a flashback dark, furtive and unsentimental.

So, yes, in this particular career context Looking for Eric can pass as relatively giddy simply for allowing a bit of sunshine and the possibility of a happy ending into one filmmaker’s otherwise reliably murky universe. That said, there are very long stretches here–actually a majority of the film’s 117 minutes–when you might be hard-pressed to find anything very comical about Eric at all.

Our 51-year-old postman protagonist Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) is first glimpsed barely surviving a nervous breakdown that expresses itself in an impromptu crazed drive going the wrong way on a one-way Manchester street. The causes of this meltdown are many. His second wife took a hike some time ago, leaving him stuck raising two out-of-control stepsons (Gerard Kearns, Stefan Gumbs) alone. They tend to use his home as a crash pad for any other friends interested in skipping school and getting high; plus one seems to be edging into vaguely criminal trouble.

He’s on better terms with a daughter (Lucy-Jo Hudson) from his first marriage. But walking out on that ex-wife (Stephanie Bishop as Lily) was the biggest mistake of his life, one she has understandably never forgiven him for. When the daughter begs both parents to cooperate in taking care of her newborn while she’s cramming for college exams, it’s more than Eric can bear–he’ll have to actually see Lily every day for weeks (after being incommunicado for years), a prospect that raises almost unendurable amounts of guilt and shame.

Sounds like a laugh riot so far, eh? Well, Eric does have a bunch of loyal workmates who have duly noted the state of his mental health. They try to cheer him up, first with jokes, then with a self-help tome’s guided meditation exercise–which they can’t get through without a hail of laddish fookin’-this and fookin’-that banter–which requires one try looking through the eyes of a person whose confidence and accomplishment you admire.

For Eric, the choice is obvious: Another Eric who’s everything he’s not, “world’s greatest footballer” Eric Cantona, his hero. A bit later, alone again in his room after yet another family crisis, our humbler Eric begs the famously philosophical retired athlete’s life-sized poster image for some help, any help, in dealing with his utterly failed life. At which point Paul Laverty’s screenplay lets an astonished Eric Bishop (who may have suffered a concussion in his driving mishap) turn around to discover he’s got an imaginary-friend guest: Eric Cantona. Played by Eric Cantona.

Which burly, bearded specter proceeds to offer him all kinds of advice at any time, in any location, in a French accent thick as a wheel of brie. (This may be the first Ken Loach movie in which the most impenetrable accents aren’t regional U.K. ones–though our hero’s mates do lay it on pretty thick, too.) The remainder of the film finds this matter-of-fact fantasy element helping un-imaginary Eric cope with various real-world situations ranging from a tentative reconciliation with Lily to one son’s escalating predicament with police, thugs, and a handgun. Interspersed throughout for all you footie fans out there are highlights from Cantona’s career, especially the 1990s glory years with Manchester United.

The jury may still be out on whether Ken Loach, or frequent scenarist Laverty, for that matter, are talents naturally suited for comedy. But Looking for Eric is a significant addition to the growing canon of soccer a.k.a. football movies, whose recent roster includes The Damned United, Bend It Like Beckham, rugby pic Invictus, the cerebral documentary Zidane, and even a gay-themed Icelandic comedy (Eleven Men Out, which is really worth a look).

It may be un-American to say this, but I don’t really care if I never see another formulaic underdog-triumph movie involving baseball or football (the American kind). But more movies of any type about soccer (or rugby) are welcome. Don’t ask why (Do these games, played by larger regions of the world, expand the athletic film frame?)–as with so many opinions about sport, this one is as irrational as it is fervent.