With movies like Riff-Raff, Raining Stones, and Ladybird Ladybird in the early ’90s, British director Ken Loach carved out a distinctive niche by fusing social realism with human comedy, adding a spoonful of sugar to make his class politics go down. Later in the decade, imitators like The Full Monty, Waking Ned Devine, and Billy Elliot found great commercial success in scaling back the politics while keeping the working-class backdrops more or less intact; at their worst, they suffered a serious case of the cutes. Now everything has come full circle: Following a run of serious dramas like The Wind That Shakes The Barley and It’s A Free World…, Loach becomes his own pale imitator with Looking For Eric, a wispy little comedy that uses fantasy to gloss over even the darkest and most intractable problems.
An early scene finds a disgruntled postman, ably played by Steve Evets, participating in an unlikely (and typically cutesy) meditation session with his pear-shaped work buddies. Each man is advised to call upon a figure to guide them through the session, and while others choose peace-loving icons like Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, Evets settles on his hero Eric Cantona, a legendary French soccer player who played for his beloved Manchester United. Having nearly died driving against traffic in a roundabout, the middle-aged Evets has hit rock bottom: His regret over abandoning his ex-wife (Stephanie Bishop) surfaces when they split care of their daughter’s newborn baby, and his rebellious stepson (Gerard Kearns) has been cavorting with local gangsters. Like Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam, Cantona intermittently appears as an imaginary friend and advisor as Evets tries to put his life back together.
Evets’ relationship to his ex-wife bears the most fruit, partly because he and Bishop so naturally suggest years of complicated history together, but mainly because Cantona’s level-headed advice seems most appropriate to matters of the heart. (Ditto Bogart in Play It Again, Sam, for that matter.) When Loach and longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty delve into the more serious business of the stepson’s ties to paper-thin gangsters, the appearance of guns, a vicious rottweiler, and hard-charging cops throws off the tone, especially in the second half. It’s as if Loach and Laverty felt compelled to give a realist edge to a premise that staunchly resists one, and it winds up making their lighthearted fantasy that much harder to swallow.