Ken Loach's Looking for Eric begins behind the wheel of a car going the wrong way down a one-way street. Cars swerve around the driver until finally a collision has the screen go black. Somehow, veteran director Ken Loach has made this feel incredibly limp and not the least bit dangerous.
You could talk yourself into thinking that the way the scene seems to fail is what makes it work. Maybe the driver didn't really mean to try to kill himself. Maybe the way he half-asses his suicide attempt underlines the way he has half-assed his whole life, which we will learn more about later in the film. Maybe the opening scene feels stilted on purpose.
That's a lot of maybes. The movie that follows this unsure opening is a bit of a grab bag, with two parallel stories and mixed results.
The sort-of suicide survivor is the movie's main character, Eric Bishop, a postal worker and father of two teenage boys. Learning about his accident, his co-workers try to cheer him up, which initiates the movie's promising buddy-comedy shenanigans. Eric's sweet-natured mates crowd into his little Manchester living room to read aloud from a self-help book, all of them notably game about a "confidence-building exercise." The scene progresses with ease into an effortlessly performed series of funny moments. The comedy comes from the truthfulness of the performances and the way Eric's friends' heart-warming effort to help is destined to fall short of the mark.
Looking for Eric diverges from its initial point of interest (cheering up Eric) into two less-rewarding arcs: Eric's attempt to get back in the good graces of his first wife and his son's involvement with a dangerous clique of petty criminals. The story about Eric's first wife, Lily, traffics in nostalgia, replete with late-night reminiscences and period-detail flashbacks. The daughter Eric had with Lily now has a baby of her own, and she needs Eric and Lily to trade off babysitting duties, which will bring them together for the first time in decades. Afraid to trade niceties with Lily, whom he left shortly after the birth of their daughter, Eric calms his nerves with his son's stash of weed.
And this is where things get a bit silly: Eric begins to see an apparition of his idol, Eric Cantona, a legendary soccer star for the local club, Manchester United, who plays himself. I don't know anything about soccer, but judging from the frequent video clips of Cantona—one of the previously mentioned elements of the movie's wistfulness—this is something akin to seeing Michael Jordan in your waking dreams, if His Airness spoke English as a second language and dropped bite-size nuggets of Yoda-style philosophy. The stretches without Cantona are the much more watchable parts of Looking for Eric.
That other arc, the one about Eric's son getting mixed up with a small-time but menacing gangster, provides a jolt of tension and energy, if it also feels like a screenwriter's device shoehorned in for the sake of tension. As is clear from Loach's 2002 film Sweet Sixteen (also written by Eric scribe Paul Laverty) or his 1970 masterpiece Kes, Loach is at his best when he's depicting kids in peril. The threat posed to Eric's son feels immediate and palpable at times, but the mounting tension it provides is shortchanged by the silly illusions-of-Cantona scenes.
The best thing about Looking for Eric is that Steve Evets, as Eric, manages not to hit a false note for the duration of this decidedly uneven drama. While the film can't quite decide what it wants to be about, Evets remains focused on having Eric slowly realize that what he wants most is forgiveness. His performance doesn't get as much room to work as it should: what might have been the best scene of the film, where Eric confesses to Lily why he left her, is interrupted with unnecessary flashbacks. Loach should have let the scene play out with an extended close-up on Evets, and his cutaways betray an uncertainty of technique that you wouldn't expect from such an experienced director. Looking for Eric is a compassionate, occasionally tender portrait of its characters, even if it never quite finds what it's looking for.