For Ken Loach to make a footie-based film isn't that surprising. In Kes he memorably indulged Brian Glover as the bullying PE teacher who insisted on playing centre-forward. And 10 years ago in My Name is Joe Peter Mullen's recovering alcoholic was coach to a local lads' team. So Loach has form here. But his pairing up with Manchester United's 1990s hero Eric Cantona to make a whimsical comedy about self-belief and togetherness comes out of the blue, like a speculative 30-yarder that flies into the top corner. I only wish it had made me leap up from my seat with a triumphant yahoo.
Looking for Eric is notable for a quite jarring mixture of styles, beginning in characteristic Loach fashion as an underdog drama. A middle-aged Mancunian postman, Eric Bishop (Steve Evets), is having a breakdown. He crashes his car after driving the wrong way around a roundabout. His home life in a tatty terrace is spilling into chaos now that his two stepsons have hit their sulky teens. When his post-office colleagues come over to see him they discover heaps of undelivered mail in his living room. (This delinquency, by the way, so enraged me that I nearly abandoned all sympathy for him right then – I shudder at stories of letter-hoarding posties). The reason Eric's depressed, we learn, relates to a surprise encounter with Lily (Stephanie Bishop), the wife he walked out on in a panic 30 years ago. He has met her again through their daughter, now a mature student with a kid of her own, and Eric realises he still loves her.
If there's something implausible about this set-up – Have they really not met each other in 30 years? Would a woman as attractive as Lily not have a partner, perhaps even another family? What happens next yanks the film into a different register altogether. Eric is mopily smoking a joint in his bedroom when he turns to find himself conversing with – sacre bleu! – his very own idol, Eric Cantona, now bearded and lightly greying but still recognisably the saturnine midfield maestro who delighted the hordes at Old Trafford. He still comes on like the philosopher king, too, in keeping with that famous gnomic utterance about seagulls and trawlers and sardines. (The speech is replayed in the closing credits). He offers his beleaguered namesake tips on how to get his life back together, in much the same way as the ghost of Humphrey Bogart hung at the shoulder of Woody Allen, dispensing romantic pointers in Play It Again, Sam.
There are differences between them: for one thing, Bogart was being played by an actor. Here it actually is Eric Cantona ("lui-même" he's named in the cast-list) spouting proverbs that the screenwriter Paul Laverty imagines would suit the one-time footballer if he were indeed a life guru. Cantona's a likeable presence, more so than he was in the recent French Film, and he doesn't take himself too seriously.
"I am not a man. I am Cantona," he says, a line that would sound terrible without the twinkle in his eye. He even plays a few squeaky notes on the trumpet. The vital lesson the footballer passes on to Eric concerns the value of teamwork. When his admirer asks him about his favourite moment of skill on the pitch, Cantona replies that it wasn't any of his goals – though his best are happily replayed in montage – but an exquisite side-of-the-boot flick that let in team-mate Dennis Irwin to score. The supreme individualist was apparently a selfless team player all along! You can believe it if you want.
Cantona is slightly forgotten in the final third when Laverty switches from mawkishness to menace. A spot of mischief darkens into a blotch of urban violence after one of Eric's layabout stepsons gets involved with a local villain; the incriminating ownership of a handgun drives Eric to a desperate meeting with this psycho-path, who casually humiliates him.
Remembering Cantona's words about dependence on your mates – rather than, say, emulating that notorious flying kung-fu kick – Eric hatches a plan to turn the tables on his nemesis. It is perhaps the least realistic scheme to outwit a villain ever seen on film, and executed in the most galumphing fashion. The tone jars horribly with what has gone before. Laverty has a proven track record as a grim social realist; he is less assured as a comic fantasist; and he is absolutely hopeless when he tries to combine the two.
One of Laverty's principal characters is Eric's post-office colleague Meatballs, nicely played by John Henshaw as a lummox who believes he can attain wisdom from self-help books. First he tries a bit of group therapy to drag Eric out of the doldrums. Later, when he hears that a "psychopath" is on the loose, he brings along to the pub a paperback entitled Psychopath. I suppose this is comedy of a sort, but like much else here it sounds like it's written by someone earnestly, doggedly conducting an investigation into what "comedy" might be. Laverty seems much more at home during another pub debate between fans of the breakaway FC Manchester and fans of the corporate-owned Premier League club; you can hear Loach's old-school socialist decency coming through loud and clear. The sentimental celebration of that decency is partly what hobbles Looking for Eric. The film ends in a welter of thank-you scenes so sincerely "feel-good" I found myself groaning. I wanted to offer my own thank-you – and good night.