Bonfires of the Verities

Taron Egerton and Hugh Jackman in Eddie the Eagle
​Eddie the Eagle​ and Paul Verhoeven’s ​Tricked​ search for social truths.

The new inspirational movie Eddie the Eagle may already be doomed. Its fact-based story of British ski jumper Michael “Eddie” Edwards, who overcame childhood physical handicaps to make a showing at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, hews so closely to familiar tales of tenacious underdogs like Rudy, Cool Runnings, and Rocky that it seems over-familiar — even at its best, as when Eddie encounters Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a boozing, cynical American former skier whose response to the kid’s determination reawakens his own long-buried ambitions. This development is nicely affecting, without ever seeming original, and that’s what dooms the movie: Our culture seems too cynical to support this style of uplift; it’s a reminder of verities that we, like Bronson, have conveniently packed away.

Indeed, does that old idea of “the eternal verities” apply any more? As risky as Eddie’s tackling the 70-meter and 90-meter jumps without previous practice is director Dexter Fletcher’s assumption that today’s marketplace won’t be embarrassed by the dramatization of confidence, perseverance, and shared values. Eddie’s bespectacled goofiness is an identifying trait (with actor Taron Egerton supplying some adult ballast to youthful coyness). Eddie is like a well-coordinated Napoleon Dynamite, a charming geek, driven not by a need for fame but by something less glamorous and less popular.

Though this quality is no longer easily describable, it feels like an embodiment of national character — that now disreputable but perhaps genuine thing that Eddie defines by defying: He resists his laborer father’s advice to play it safe, and that same individuality eventually forces the British Olympic Association to clarify its class-based rules on sponsorship and non-professional qualification. Eddie’s personal character brings out the eternal verities of meritorious competition and self-confidence, regardless of what’s popular or fashionable. This is not Blighty jingoism, any more than the example of the Jamaican bobsled team in Cool Runnings was jingoistic, yet there is a cultural essence to the celebration of Eddie’s eccentricity as a commonly recognized virtue. His story is, after all, a story of Britishness, like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Jo Hartley as Eddie’s loving Mom, Jim Broadbent as a patriotic sportscaster, and Ania Sowinski as a guileless TV publicist faithfully give it its due.

A beautiful twist on the mentor–protégé dynamic between Bronson and Eddie reflects Bronson’s own history — his conflict between egotism and professionalism, which adds an unexpected dimension. Bronson’s reunion with his own mentor (Christopher Walken) gives an emotional grounding that appropriately follows Eddie’s soaring to heights via Eighties pop music. The clichés in Eddie the Eagle are upfront, but these are also verities; they are organic to the story and essential to the example that Eddie represents. If “smart” moviegoers reject that (as they rejected the restorative clichés of Creed), they outsmart themselves.

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Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s cynicism is often redeemed by satire — and he has suffered for it. His 1995 film Showgirls endured the ignominy of being “rediscovered” as a camp classic by viewers who lacked the intellectual confidence to appreciate what was essentially Verhoeven’s elaborate mockery of the Clinton-era mania for fame and sex and power. In a new film titled Tricked, the satirist tries working around his overly jaded public. A half-hour prologue explains his reluctance to make yet another science-fiction movie (after RoboCop, Starship Troopers, Total Recall, and Hollow Man, he deserves the reprieve). Today’s sci-fi makes satire impossible; comics fans have ingested so much irony they’re immune to its instructive purpose. (Yet, why must Verhoeven slag on Irvin Kershner’s morally restorative RoboCop 2? Not jaded enough, I guess.)

#related#In Tricked (Verhoeven calls it “My 14½, like Fellini’s ”), the character-driven story still relies on a visual effect — the exposed behind-the-scenes process of filmmaking. Verhoeven puts the production together using a screenwriter’s idea, then adding narrative development contributed by the public. This experiment parallels new methods like reality TV and webisodes as well as Lars von Trier’s meta-cinema The Five Obstructions and Godard’s Goodbye to Language. It’s an attempt to satirize narrative techniques that have made it difficult for filmmakers to say anything of substance without being ridiculed as camp.

Tricked is the opposite of Eddie the Eagle; it cynically presents a dysfunctional family, the Remcos, a bickering, philandering couple and their decadent teenage son and daughter, who indulge in sex, drugs, and betrayal. Still the satirist, Verhoeven turns this lurid, though brightly photographed, sitcom into a millennial Volpone. To say that it is a redemptive social satire is not to give the plot away but to point out Verhoeven’s goal of reviving the eternal verities for an era that, like the film’s bourgeois family, doesn’t realize it has rejected them. Tricked is a bonfire of the verities.

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