In the Winter Olympics, ski jumping is one of those sports — bobsledding and luging are others — where Joe and Jane Satellite Dish cannot tell the difference between a great performance and a terrible one unless the athlete is carried away on a stretcher. No doubt there are crucial nuances in power and form, but on television, the mechanics all look the same: Athlete whooshes down giant ramp, athlete glides majestically through the air with body forward and skis up, athlete attempts to land without breaking his neck. Whoever jumps the farthest wins. The winner is usually Scandinavian.
For broadcast networks to simply show the event — round after round, jump after jump, from 70- and 90-meter distances — they’d have to be willing to watch their ratings glide majestically downhill, too. So instead, they look for inspirational stories to package — and they got a doozy in Michael “Eddie” Edwards, a British ski jumper who finished dead last in both events at the 1988 Games in Calgary, but whooped and flapped as if he'd won the gold. Never much of a force in the Winter Games, the Brits had no tradition as a ski-jumping nation, which allowed Edwards to slip into competition without much experience or skill (and to considerable controversy from the sporting elite). But with his Mr. Magoo glasses, his ungainly frame and his big personality, Edwards was a media sensation: a working-class bloke with dreams of Olympic glory.
The Jamaican bobsled team also dazzled Calgary with its non-excellence that year, inspiring the Disney comedy Cool Runnings five years later. And now Edwards’ story has finally been packaged as Eddie the Eagle, which could be dubbed a Full Monty cash-in if it weren’t so late for that, too. A tacky embroidered sweater of a movie, Eddie the Eagle has the populist tone of those TV packages for the Olympics, only at 20 times the length and without Bob Costas’ narration. It tiptoes around the stickiest questions about Edwards’ legitimacy, invents a hard-drinking American coach out of whole cloth and covers most of its hero's athletic progress in a training montage set to Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True.” Short of outfitting Edwards with a beer helmet as he careens down the inrun, the film’s commitment to broad feel-good-isms is absolute.
As Edwards, Taron Egerton is as crazily mannered and over-the-top as the nerd in an ’80s college comedy, but clips of the real man downgrade that assessment to merely “a bit much.” After scenes from Edwards’ childhood establish him as a physically limited boy with Olympic aspirations — a Rushmore-esque montage of failed backyard events (javelin, pole vaulting, hurdles, etc.) yields a tin of shattered glasses — Eddie the Eagle catches up with him as a 22-year-old still eyeing the medal stand. Having shifted from summer sports to skiing, Edwards targets ski jumping as his ticket into the British Olympic team and heads on his own dime to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, to teach himself how to do it. The Finns treat him shabbily, but a snowplow operator named Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a former ski-jumping hopeful from the United States, takes the Eagle under his wing.
From the film’s perspective, there are only two types of people: those inspired by Edwards’ plucky resolve and the Finnish snobs or bureaucratic prigs who insist that he’s denigrating the sport. If there’s a reasonable position somewhere in the middle — the person who admires Edwards’ determination but respects the cruel meritocracy of athletic skill — Eddie the Eagle isn’t aware of it. The hero is a jumper-come-lately who’s dodging a future as a plastering apprentice; the villains are Olympians who have been honing their craft since the age of 6. Unless their stories are colorful, their achievements don’t matter. That’s true of primetime Olympics broadcasts — and of Eddie the Eagle.
Actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher, who previously made the Proclaimers jukebox musical Sunshine on Leith, approaches the material with an uncomplicated exuberance that wears you down. Not a second of Eddie the Eagle rings true, but it goads the audience into guzzling its cheery platitudes anyway, like the shots the other athletes force on the teetotaling Edwards in Calgary. Did Edwards really learn proper aerial form through a Bo Derek sex fantasy? Did he really spend the Opening Ceremony passed out in a laundry bin? It’s tempting to imbibe every last drop of Fletcher’s noxious absinthe and get drunk on his tall tales of underdog achievement. But it won’t feel good in the morning.