Eric Who?

A middle-age British postal worker in crisis gets advice from a pot-induced imaginary friend

If you're a huge Eric Cantona fan, you're not going to want to miss Looking for Eric, which may be the best Eric Cantona-oriented movie of the last five years.

If, like the vast majority of the human race, you've never heard of Eric Cantona, and wouldn't care about him even if you did know what he was famous for, then Looking for Eric might be a harder sell.

Director Ken Loach, known for his working-class stories that tug at the hearts of critics and leave audiences a bit bored, has turned his back on the high-end filmmaking of his The Wind That Shakes the Barley to produce a small film about a middle-age postal worker's feelings. Steve Evets plays mailman Eric Bishop, who lives with two stepsons from his failed second marriage. One of them likes gangster rap; the other likes hanging around with actual gangsters.

Meanwhile, Eric's daughter from his first marriage needs Eric to look after her infant, and to swap the wee child back and forth with Eric's first wife, Lily. But Eric hasn't spoken to Lily since he walked out on her and their daughter 30 years earlier, and he feels like that might be an issue between them.

Torn up and emotional about the thought of again seeing the woman he loved so much that he dumped her while she was still nursing their child, Eric turns to his son's pot stash, which leads him to develop an imaginary friendship with his idol, Eric Cantona, whom you might remember as the guy you've never heard of.

At this point, people who were big Manchester United fans in the '90s are staring incredulously at their newspaper or Web browser, wondering how something that claims to be human could fail to know about Cantona. He was, it seems, one of the greatest players in the game of soccer, or, as the rest of the world calls it, "footing-ball sport."

In the film, Cantona magically appears out of a cloud of pot smoke and starts giving Bishop advice on life and love and teamwork. Since Cantona plays himself and, apparently, acts like himself, Cantona's fans will probably get a big kick out of this film. He engages in some über-cool philosophizing, spouting gnomic utterances and pushing Bishop to get back into the game of life, or some such.

Cantona is famous for holding a press conference and saying only, "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much," and then leaving the room. So he fits the part of the otherworldly sage. Plus, he plays himself perfectly, as though he'd been rehearsing for the role his entire life.

The rest of the film, though, is a bit slapdash. There's a very convoluted story that emerges late in the film involving a contraband pistol and a threatening thug. This leads to some truly silly plotting wherein a cadre of postal workers don Cantona masks and do something that solves the problem. It is so far-fetched that it's as though the fourth act of Hamlet involved Fortinbras arriving in a space ship, resurrecting Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Claudius and Gertrude, and then granting everyone a magic pony to ride.

The real drag, though, is the cinematography. This film is shot on what appears to be low-end digital video, and the washed-out colors and flat lighting make it look like a sitcom from the '70s. The look of the film is matched by incredibly cheesy music. It might all be designed to give the feel of a certain period in English television, but since American audiences won't be familiar with that, or with Cantona, it's wasted in a U.S. release.

If you can ignore the unnecessary and ridiculously tacked-on gangster plot, and the fact that the film relies on Cantona's name recognition, and just pay attention to the story of a middle-age man reconnecting with an old love, then Looking for Eric could be decent light entertainment. Evets is believably beat-down as Eric Bishop, and his cadre of postal-worker friends have wonderfully diverse body shapes and attitudes. John Henshaw is particularly great as the portly Meatballs, a postman who reads self-help books and leads his fellows on guided meditations wherein they take on the personas of Gandhi, Che Guevara, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.

The only problem with the cast is that they take on (or perhaps have) heavy English working-class accents. So the dialogue, which has a natural rhythm and nice sense of the mundane, is sometimes hard to follow. I know what "I didn't fink that were gonna happen" means, but a lot of the dialogue is so dense with dialect and muddled by accent that it sounds like the love songs of drunken whales.

But if you're from the midlands, loved English football in the '90s and don't mind a plot twist that comes across like it was written by a 9-year-old Superman fan, I think Looking for Eric could be an enjoyable ride all the way through. If not, you may find it a bit bumpy.