Looking for Eric (IFC Films) is a late entry in British director Ken Loach's 46-year catalog of socially engaged kitchen-sink dramas. That's too big a body of work to generalize about, but Looking for Eric is easily the most commercially accessible of the Loach films I've seen, one of the lightest and least somber. It's also wildly structureless and uneven. The script by longtime Loach collaborator Ken Laverty, in which a depressed Mancunian turns his life around through his imaginary friendship with a famous soccer player, never quite succeeds in fusing magic-realist whimsy with social-realist grit. But Looking for Eric stubbornly refuses to back down from its belief that this ordinary man's life is worth caring about, and in the end, we do.
Eric (Steve Evets) is a twice-divorced postal worker in his mid-50s, given to drinking steadily to self-medicate his frequent panic attacks. Thirty years ago, Eric deserted his first wife, Lily (Stephanie Bishop), while she was pregnant with their child. Now the two of them are uneasily reconnecting as grandparents trading off the care of their daughter's new baby, and Lily makes it clear she has no intention of letting her ex off the hook for abandoning her all those years ago. He also lives with two grown stepsons (Gerard Kearns and Stefan Gumbs) from his second marriage, who treat him with open contempt and depend on him financially.
So Eric's got a lot on his plate, which makes it understandable that he'd take refuge in fantasy. In his bedroom at night, he confides his troubles to a life-size cardboard cutout of the famous French soccer player Eric Cantona (who played for Manchester United in the '90s.) But the viewer is only slightly less shocked than Eric is when one night he looks up to find himself addressing the real live Cantona (Eric Cantona, playing himself with evident amusement). After recovering from his disbelief that his hero is standing in his bedroom, Eric quickly adjusts to this odd new reality, and Cantona becomes his invisible-to-everyone-else BFF. Together the two Erics smoke pot, go for jogs, and talk about soccer and women. Cantona encourages Eric to try again with Lily, and gradually the estranged exes begin to broker a truce.
This all sounds ickily sentimental, as if Robin Williams must be lurking on the premises. But as it plays out, Looking for Eric is often starkly downbeat. Late in the movie, a crime subplot involving the stepsons emerges out of the blue, and there's a jarring shift in mood when a tender domestic moment between Eric and Lily is interrupted by a sudden and terrifying police raid.
As he often does, Loach chooses little-known or nonprofessional actors who are allowed some improvisation, giving the film an agreeably rough-hewn, casual feel. There are many individual scenes that work beautifully, even if Loach can't quite figure out how to string them together. A flashback to the younger Eric and Lily falling in love as they dance to '50s rock 'n' roll could easily have read as generic schmaltz, but it's curiously powerful, perhaps because the young actors playing the lovers seem less exhilarated than awed by the force of their mutual attraction.
At its worst, Looking for Eric can be suffocatingly quirky, like when Cantona produces a trumpet out of nowhere and begins to play "La Marseillaise." (There needs to be a mashup made of movies in which a character suddenly reveals his or her ability to play some kind of horn.) And I wish I knew what Loach ultimately thinks about the role of sports (or other mass entertainments) as fantasy fodder for the working class. In one scene, Eric takes away his do-nothing stepsons' TV as they howl in protest, implying a critique of mass-market escapism. But where else would Eric watch his beloved Manchester United games if not on television?
Slate V: The Critics on Robin Hood, Letters to Juliet, and Just Wright