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06.09.10

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Phaedra
Photograph by Joss Barratt
HORN SECTION: Eric Cantona (left) rouses a better spirit in plain Eric (Steve Evets).

The Men's Club

A soccer star comes to life to help a hapless mailman in 'Looking for Eric'

By Richard von Busack


DIRECTOR Ken Loach has been nobly serving the cause of the proletariat with social-realist films for so long that he has earned the right to make a crowd-pleaser. The genial Looking for Eric is just that. Eric (the palindromic Steve Evets), a depressed, skinny Manchester postie, gets his groove back through the good counsel of an imaginary pal: Eric Cantona (playing himself), deemed here "the greatest footballer who ever lived."

Like a Conrad hero, Eric is marked by a failure of nerve 30 years ago; now his past has come home to haunt him. Eric's grown-up daughter, Sam (Lucy-Jo Hudson), needs some help taking care of her baby. She reaches out to both Eric and his long-estranged ex-wife, Lily (Stephanie Bishop), whom Eric has been avoiding for decades. Eric's emotional crisis is detected by his bald, pudgy pal Meatballs (John Henshaw), who forms a makeshift men's group to help Eric out.

All the fellas are supposed to get in touch with a spirit guide. Eric's choice is obvious: "King" Cantona, the postman's idol ever since the French footballer's stint at Manchester United in the mid-1990s. While smoking some marijuana by himself, Eric the postman is visited by Eric the soccer star; the great man materializes from a poster—just as Bogart did in the Woody Allen/Herbert Ross film Play It Again, Sam. Through Carbona's good advice, Eric starts to retrieve himself from a 30-year-long wrong turn, returning to the moment before he broke.

I don't know jack about soccer, although Loach's movie just about convinced me what is so great about the game. However, I can guess what sort of charisma a Frenchman would have to have to win the admiration of so many working-class British fans. Watching clips of Cantona play, one marvels at his preternatural ability to see when to kick and when to pass; one further enjoys the suave way Carbona handled "the seagull incident," as diplomatic a put-down to the gutter press as ever made. This real-life clip is seen in the end titles. Loach may have picked Carbona to be a counselor because of another incident in the player's lore: how he told reporters that he went to play soccer in England because his psychiatrist advised him to do it.

The Francophobia endemic in American/English films has contributed to the death of the romantic Frenchman onscreen; he's been replaced by the bloodless ditherer and the dialect-comedy clown. Cantona, a Marseillan from Sardinian roots, is an ugly/handsome smolderer. In him, one sees the calm, debonair warmth that made moviegoers respond to French actors for decades. Carbona had a role in the 1998 feature Elizabeth but didn't stand out there; yet he's a natural for the camera, and he makes a believable mentor to a man in real pain.

Looking for Eric gets a little more fantastic in the last third, when the crowd-pleasing tricks arrive. The postman has two stepchildren from an apparently disastrous second marriage. The boys are going bad from neglect and falling under the control of a sadistic local criminal. Cantona's exhortations to "trust your team" convince Eric to take some extralegal action, and that's when I started to feel slightly ambiguous about this film. Loach, generally a pretty strict left-wing director (Poor Cow, Raining Stones, et al.) seems here to be turning to the methods we Americans use to deal with our own feelings of powerlessness: visualization, life coaches and fantasies of vigilante action.

This is just an undertone, and it's not as important as Loach's often-loving look at the city of Manchester, and the talk, the humor and the pubs therein. It's a male world with sternness behind the fellowship: that's clear from the William Demerest-like gargle of Henshaw, running his men's group and urging his pals to think of "Someone who totally loves you without conditions, right?" in a sergeant-major's bark. This is a soulful movie, but its feet are on the ground.

LOOKING FOR ERIC (Unrated; 116 min.), directed by Ken Loach, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon.


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