Earlier this month, I ran across the teaser for Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. I didn’t know anything about the project, and so I did a double take when I saw the trailer, thinking, “Wait, is that …?” Indeed, it is Rachel McAdams, hamming it up opposite Will Ferrell and singing about the mystic spirits of the volcanic plains of Iceland.
It jarred some thoughts loose in my head. As incredible as it sounds, the actress who played Regina George in Mean Girls doesn’t receive enough credit for her comedy skills. Let’s see what we can do about that.
She is from London, Ontario, and if you didn’t know that, the closing credit sequence of Eurovision puts a maple leaf flag next to her name, along with appropriate countries’ flags next to the names of the other principal cast members. Like so many other movie stars these days, she started acting before she hit puberty, playing Shakespeare roles onstage at age 13. That experience probably got her cast in Slings and Arrows, a Canadian TV show about a struggling theater troupe, where she portrays an ingenue who realizes her dream of playing Ophelia and does it to devastating effect.
So we know how good she can be in dramatic roles. Her one Oscar nomination to date came for Spotlight, and she does fine understated work in it as a Boston reporter on the trail of pedophile priests. (The film’s DVD release has a round table with the real-life journalists portrayed in the movie as a bonus feature, and you can see how good a job she and the other actors did absorbing the mannerisms of their counterparts.) She should have received another one for her anguished turn as a gay British Orthodox Jew in Disobedience. She looks properly swashbuckling in Sherlock Holmes, and in The Family Stone, she brings such sadistic delight in torturing Sarah Jessica Parker’s sister-in-law-to-be that it rattles the whole structure of that cozy Christmas comedy, and I find that character scarier than Regina George, because she knows how to be subtle. One of my favorite performances of hers is in my personal favorite among Wes Craven’s films, Red Eye, in which she plays an airline passenger being blackmailed by Cillian Murphy’s terrorist. With most of its story focusing on those two people sitting next to each other on an airplane, the film’s setup places enormous pressure on the actors, and she comes through in flying colors as she tries to outwit a stranger who has targeted her specifically and knows everything about her.
Before all of that, the first thing I noticed her in was The Hot Chick, a 2002 comedy in which she plays a sorority girl who switches bodies with Rob Schneider. If ever a film had a built-in excuse for phoning in a performance, surely it’s that one. Instead, she turned that comedy into a showcase for physical comedy. (Too bad only about 10 people saw it in theaters.) In The Lucky Ones, she plays an Iraq war veteran on leave in the States and walks away with the film as a Southern girl with no filter who’s equally willing to talk to evangelical Christians and prostitutes. There’s also her performance in Game Night. In what’s supposed to be an ensemble piece, she’s the standout comedian, and her performance can be summed up with the phrase, “Oh, no! He died!”
In Eurovision, she portrays Sigrit Ericksdóttir, a schoolteacher in the town of Húsavík who is half of the singing duo Fire Saga along with Ferrell’s Lars Ericksson (or Erickssong, as he styles himself). They dream of representing Iceland at Eurovision, the annual Europe-wide singing contest that features one competitor per country. They place last at Iceland’s preliminary contest, but the 11 musical acts that finish ahead of them are all killed in a freak accident, so off they go to the big competition in Edinburgh.
I should say that you’re not really hearing her sing in Eurovision. She was singing on the set to better lip-sync to the songs, and some of her singing was spliced into the final sound mix, but you’re mostly hearing the Swedish singer Molly Sandén a.k.a. My Marianne. Ferrell is also a co-writer on the project, and he’s right to identify Eurovision as fertile ground for comedy. Too often, David Dobkin (who directed Ferrell and McAdams in Wedding Crashers) doesn’t go far enough with the contest’s over-the-top stagecraft. When he does, it works, as when Lars descends from the auditorium ceiling running inside a giant hamster wheel. (I should also mention Dan Stevens, giving his funniest performance to date as the Russian contestant who’s manlier than you, me, and our 50 closest friends put together. His song “Lion of Love” is the film’s biggest laugh.) At least the movie’s working with songs by legit pop songwriters, which wouldn’t sound out of place at Eurovision.
McAdams projects varying levels of confidence during her performances of the songs, depending on the circumstances they’re performed under. Her commitment never flags as she plays a woman who believes in elves, wears some hideous outfits of Lars’ design, and carries a torch for Lars even though they might be siblings. As good as she is in drama, she is best at comedy, and the sillier it is, the better she is. This role could have easily been played by Kristen Wiig, and McAdams slots into it easily. What makes me sad is that if you look back at her résumé, there’s a disconcerting amount of filler such as About Time and The Time Traveler’s Wife. In Southpaw, her job was to die in order to give her boxer husband motivation for the rest of the film. I don’t remember a single thing she did in Midnight in Paris. I do remember that her attempts to inject some life into Morning Glory resulted in some oppressive overacting. And what about Doctor Strange was crying out for her services? (Other than the paycheck, I mean.) Would we all not have been better off if she’d been clowning around with the ladies in Rough Night or the Ghostbusters remake? If we lived in a better world, great comedy performances would receive more Oscar consideration and actors like McAdams would have more incentive to do them than just the fun of it. Well, at least we have Eurovision and other films to show us what she can do. Let’s have more.
Also in the Considering series:
Taraji P. Henson