American audiences might not recall the name Eddie Edwards, but the British ski jumper made a terrific human interest story when he competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Edwards followed a wildly unlikely path to the Games, taking up his sport just a short time earlier, when he was already in his 20s. It was hard to know whether to chuckle at him as a lovably goofy novelty act, or to be genuinely stirred by his medals-aren’t-everything joy at simply competing.
The infectious “Eddie the Eagle” succeeds by mining both aspects of Edwards’s story with an equally deft touch. Chameleonic lead Taron Egerton (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”), costar Hugh Jackman, and director Dexter Fletcher freshen up customary inspirational sports drama by actively acknowledging that, yeah, the guy’s story is kind of funny, too. No coincidence that the movie name-checks the Jamaican bobsled team (of “Cool Runnings” fame) for context.
We first meet Edwards as a young boy whose dreams of Olympic glory — in whatever sport — draw affectionate smiles from his blue-collar parents (Jo Hartley and Keith Allen). More power to the lad, thinks his mum in particular, never mind the Forrest Gump leg brace he wears.
Fast forward several years, and Eddie’s aspirations are no longer quite so cute to everyone. Egerton’s character still strikes viewers as an endearing picture of hope, all awkward mannerisms, owlish glasses, and a jaw jut that might be the most committed actorly facial contortion since Billy Bob Thornton in “Sling Blade.” But his fringe involvement with Britain’s Olympic downhill team isn’t promising, and his pragmatic dad is impatient to teach him the plastering trade.
Then, an epiphany: He could be his country’s lone ski jumper in Calgary. With typical doofy determination, he heads to Germany to begin training — from scratch. Managing one modest jump, he’s convinced he’s ready to move up — a miscalculation akin to sliding down your basement bulkhead unscathed, then immediately attempting Big Air at Fenway. (Thrills and spills alike are dynamically shot and enhanced.)
The snooty world-class training crowd ridicules him, but he finds a grudging supporter in boozy US Olympian-turned-trail groomer Bronson Peary (Jackman, nicely cast in a fictional role). The pair are soon teaching each other valuable lessons about respecting the sport, and themselves. Onward to Canada, still greater challenges, and even a reunion with Peary’s estranged ex-coach (Christopher Walken, adding to the movie’s breezy flirtation with parody). Inspiring, or amusing? Appealingly, “Eddie the Eagle” invites both tags.
★ ★ ★
EDDIE THE EAGLE
Directed by Dexter Fletcher. Written by Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton. Starring Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 105 minutes. PG-13 (some suggestive material, partial nudity, smoking).