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Looking for Eric (15)

Loach’s most upbeat film yet delivers moments of magic without convincing

On the poster for Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric, the “i” in “Eric” has been replaced by the silhouette of an exultant figure, arms raised to the skies, just like the letter “y” in the original Rocky artwork. Like Rocky, Loach’s picture has a lowly, hangdog hero redeemed by his love for a good woman. It’s the first resolutely upbeat film in this director’s 40-year-plus career, but it doesn’t quite bring to an end the ongoing “leopard/spots” debate. The problem is that this branching out into the inspirational sits awkwardly with the grittiness still insisted on by Loach. Looking for Eric is not so much a game of two halves as a case of entirely different sports – bare-knuckle boxing, say, and lawn bowls – forced on to the same bill.

Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) is a middle-aged postman with a face and voice of harshest sandpaper. He is also something of an outsider, and not only because he’s a Man United fan who actually lives in Manchester. Eric, whose turbulent personal life has left him raising two teenage stepsons from a long-dead marriage, still broods over the day three decades earlier when he abandoned his first wife, Lily (Stephanie Bishop). Then, one evening, Eric Cantona materialises before him while he is smoking a consoling joint. Don’t try this at home, especially if you support City.

Football and philosophy represent only the beginning of Cantona’s talents. He is also a budding life coach: “Without danger, we can’t get past danger,” he tells Eric, forcing him to confront painful memories of Lily in order to win her back. Cantona orders Eric to shave and exercise, and accompanies him on his round. He brings an idle stereo system to life merely by pointing at it, and unbuttons his shirt seductively before leading Eric in a dancing lesson. Cantona emerges from this scene more macho than ever, and from the film in general as a relaxed performer capable of both sending up, and cashing in on, his reputation.

Humour is nothing new in Loach’s work, but his comic scenes usually function as mid-meal palate-cleansers (the PE lesson in Kes) or appetisers before a daunting main course (Raining Stones, My Name Is Joe). Riff-Raff raised some raucous laughter, though Looking for Eric is the first Loach film still to be aiming for that response by the end. The bonhomie between Eric and his colleagues, including the splendid John Henshaw as Meatballs, strikes a quaint note. Squinting at the sweaty entanglements in a porn film, Meatballs displays an interest that is purely neighbourly. “Is that Maureen from the minimart?” he wonders aloud.

A comedy of sorts it may be, but Looking for Eric still incorporates poverty, depression, gun crime
and unscrupulous thugs. Clearly it will be some time before Loach is inundated with scripts from Adam Sandler. The film also features some of those frightening explosions of violence, like the loan sharks’ visit in Raining Stones, which are as integral to Loach as the end-of-Act-I showstopper is to the Broadway musical.

The difference now is that the feel-good element in the Cantona strand of the story not only prevails, but becomes the catalyst for positive change. This development rather cancels out the authenticity of scenes in which Eric’s stepson is forced by a local mobster to harbour a gun. Escapism and realism are incompatible principles. Uplifting events can sprout from a realistic setting, but the placatory philosophy essential to feel-good entertainment can’t blossom there. It’s not the correct sort of soil. Loach is more at home creating surprising pockets of wonder than overall magic: when Eric attacks the layabouts in his house with pillows, the shower of feathers produces a jaunty homage to Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite in an unlikely setting.

The fantasy element of Looking for Eric recalls Play It Again, Sam, written by Woody Allen. But it is a film that Allen directed, The Purple Rose of Cairo, which really shows up the naivety of Loach’s outlook. That movie, about a Depression-era housewife whose favourite matinee idol steps off the screen and into her life, had one of the bleakest endings in all cinema. It is understandable that Loach and his regular writer, Paul Laverty, might want to offer blind optimism in these taxing times. But they should not be surprised if viewers scoff during the climax to their film, which proposes a solution not unlike sending in the A-Team to sort out the problems in The Wire.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!