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Movie Review

Looking for Eric

Brit comedy has some kicks

Steve Evets (left) and real-life soccer star Eric Cantona in the quirky “Looking for Eric.’’ Steve Evets (left) and real-life soccer star Eric Cantona in the quirky “Looking for Eric.’’ (Joss Barratt/IFC Films/AP)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 21, 2010

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Even the high-minded need a vacation from time to time. The British filmmaker Ken Loach has been churning out fiercely moral works of social realism since 1967, films that deal with labor rights, homelessness, and the plight of England’s dispossessed. With 2006’s IRA period epic “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,’’ a prizewinner at Cannes, Loach reached a peak of visibility and respect.

“Looking for Eric’’ is nothing like that. It’s a surprise, in fact — a dryly absurdist comedy with a dollop of magic realism. Beginning in grim kitchen-sink territory, the movie gets lighter and goofier as it goes, and if it’s a bit of a mess, it’s also a pick-me-up that suggests how hard and how rewarding it can be to set a life back on course.

Eric Bishop (Steve Evets) — only one of the Erics in this movie — is a gangly Manchester postal worker who’s way off course when the movie begins, driving his car the wrong way round a roundabout until there’s a crash from which he’s lucky to walk away. But walk back to what? His second wife (or third; no one seems sure) has left him, his teenage son, Ryan (Gerard Kearns), is an errand boy for a vicious local gangster, and a younger stepson, Jess (Stefan Gumbs), is on the verge of becoming a wild child.

What has set Eric in a dither is the reappearance of his fragile first wife, Lily (Stephanie Bishop), who would be his long-lost love if he hadn’t been the one to lose her, walking out on her and their daughter in a panic 20 years earlier. The daughter (Lucy-Jo Hudson) is now a single mom getting her college degree, and her schedule demands that Eric and Lily share baby-sitting duties. Eric can’t even begin to articulate the titanic regret inside him; vehicular suicide seems the only option.

When that doesn’t work out, he begins unburdening himself to his bedroom poster of the great Manchester United football star Eric Cantona. To his and our surprise, the poster talks back.

Or rather, Eric Cantona — the real Cantona, played charmingly by himself — appears in Eric’s room to give him rueful Gallic advice, much the way Humphrey Bogart aided Woody Allen in “Play It Again, Sam.’’ “Looking for Eric’’ wears this gimmick easily, with Cantona disappearing for long stretches and turning up again when most needed. Our Eric doesn’t think it’s odd at all, and after a while neither do we.

Loach and his longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty (nine movies and counting) skip from subplot to subplot, and what the movie has in genial observation it lacks in narrative focus. As if the hero’s family weren’t enough, the film piles on a rowdy group of fellow postal workers headed by one Meatballs (John Henshaw), an almost wholly spherical specimen of humanity with a fondness for self-help books. They’re Eric’s own Seven Dwarfs, and the movie enlists them in a silly but irresistible climax involving the gangster, paint-guns, and a video destined for what Meatballs insists on calling “BlueTube.’’

Parts of “Looking for Eric’’ may be heavy sledding for American audiences, given the wall-to-wall football arcana and Manchester accents that are thicker than warm Guinness. (Whatever they’re saying, you can safely assume it’s obscene.) Evets, who resembles a depressive but adorable social-realist Kramer from “Seinfeld,’’ lets the character slowly come into his own. Eric begins this story as a sad-eyed cipher and ends it as a whole man, and maybe that’s structure enough, and reason enough, for one film.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

LOOKING FOR ERIC

Directed by: Ken Loach

Written by: Paul Laverty

Starring: Steve Evets, Eric Cantona, Stephanie Bishop, John Henshaw

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 117 minutes

Unrated (as R: casual and constant F-bombing)

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