There are two kinds of inspiring Olympic movies: the kind that awe us with accounts of athletes in peak condition; and the kind that amuse us with accounts of regular people who somehow found Olympic glory. This second kind is more relatable. You’re not fast enough to be Jesse Owens, and you don’t have the willpower to train yourself to become so. But if a 24-year-old British nerd who’s never ski-jumped before can compete in the Olympics as a ski-jumper, then (theoretically) anyone can!
That’s the story of “Eddie the Eagle,” an exuberant crowd-pleaser about Michael “Eddie” Edwards, who had his 15 minutes of fame at the 1988 Calgary Olympics (same year as the Jamaican bobsled team, which means this film shares a cinematic universe with “Cool Runnings”). Played by the unrealistically adorable Taron Egerton (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”) in giant, unflattering eyeglasses, Eddie is a socially awkward working-class lad who’s had Olympic dreams his whole life despite having very little athletic prowess and no idea which particular event he should focus on. His sweet mother (Jo Hartley) gently encourages him; his pragmatic father (Keith Allen), a plasterer by trade, encourages him to become a plasterer. (“It’s not like I’m taking up ballet!” Eddie pleads, in case you weren’t already reminded of “Billy Elliot.”)
Eddie tries downhill skiing, but he’s told by a grim official before the opening credits have even finished rolling that he “will never be Olympic material.” That’s when he hits on a new plan: the ski-jump. He underestimates how hard it actually is, but he’s right that it requires less stamina and physicality than, say, the biathlon. Moreover, since England hasn’t sent a ski-jump team to the Olympics in several decades, the outdated eligibility requirements make it comparatively easy to qualify. With help from Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a washed-up (and fictional) American ex-jumper who’s now a groundskeeper at a German training facility, Eddie sets his sights on the 1988 Games.
Despite the underdog cliches — the drunk coach; the stuffy officials; the unsupportive dad; the taunting Norwegians — “Eddie the Eagle” succeeds for the same reason the real Eddie did: optimism, good humor, and infectious, heart-on-sleeve enthusiasm. Director Dexter Fletcher keeps the tone light without being silly, and he doesn’t shy away from the real thrills and dangers of ski-jumping. (Pity about the tacked-on subplot with Christopher Walken as Peary’s disappointed former mentor. Walken is onscreen for about three minutes.)
As Eddie, Egerton juts out his chin and locks his mouth in a determined rictus that somehow conveys optimism even though it is technically a frown. He’s a milk-drinking babe in the woods, too naive to know what he’s doing is impossible, yet too resilient to be dismissed. He’s afraid of women and unnerved by sauna nudity. How can you not root for a guy like that? It’s a can’t-miss formula for a sports movie, and sure enough, “Eddie the Eagle” sticks the landing.
B+ (1 hr., 45 min.; )