When the great British social realist director Ken Loach last attempted to make a comedy, 2007's It's a Free World... the results were a bit mixed; being a great social realist isn't just something you can turn off like its' a light switch, and so the breezy, appealing, and very smart opening hour of that film gently but unfortunately gave way to a rather grim and unpleasant finale that jarred badly with everything that had gone before; the result felt like two movies and only one of them worth watching - the other wasn't aught but a parody of Loach, or at best Loach warmed-over.

Thus it was with no tiny amount of fear that I headed into Looking for Eric, the director's follow-up to It's a Free World... in more ways than one: for here we find him once again dabbling in the world of comedy, and once again mixing that comedy with the gritty social observation that he does so much better than just about anybody. Thankfully, there's no point where he decides that he can't do both of those at the same time, and so Looking for Eric is an altogether smoother ride; even if it is ultimately a bit on the shallow side, that conclusion doesn't seem to matter much at the end of the film's frequently hilarious 116 minutes.

Written by Paul Laverty, one of Loach's key collaborators over the past several years, the film suggests an affinity with a great many other movies, but it somehow avoids seeming derivative of any of them. The best I can think to say is that it's not all that different from the marriage of The Full Monty (and its many descendants) and Play It Again, Sam: a man with a mediocre job in a British town that didn't survive post-industrial economic fallout fantasises that a famous man whom he idolises appears in his flat to give him advice about love, work, and life, but really mostly love. The sad-sack hero in this case is postman Eric Bishop (Steve Evets), and he's not calling up a suave movie star to help him out, but by Eric Cantona, former star player for the Manchester United football club, and a Frenchman (which takes care of the "suave" part). Cantona plays himself, in a perfectly charming and delightful turn that represents a level of bravery and actorly skill that I wouldn't necessarily expect from any American sports hero; and I suspect that everyone else of the correct age to remember Space Jam knows precisely what I am referring to.

There are two forms that the problems in Eric's life - that's Eric Bishop, not Eric the French ball player - take: either something going dreadfully wrong in the life of one of his two teenage sons, Ryan (Gerard Kearns) and Jess (Stefan Gumbs) - in particular, Ryan seems to be falling in with a most unfortunate group of unsavory types, with the leader of that group requiring that Ryan hide the gang's gun (yes, "gun" singular; it's Britain) in his bedroom - or just good old-fashioned romantic angst, for as Eric gets closer and closer to 50, he becomes more and more aware that he has never loved and will never love someone as much as his first of (apparently) three wives, the mother of his grown daughter Sam (Lucy-Jo Hudson), and the object of his fondest memories, Lily (Stephanie Bishop). Eric - that's Eric Cantona, not Eric the dull schlub - always seems to know exactly the right thing to do in any given situation, and his advice is enough to make Eric - oh my God, the contrivance wasn't nearly this annoying when I was just watching the goddamn thing - get his life turned around pretty well, though there are some wrinkles along the way, as there must be.

The story is familiar to the point that it's musty: a guy's life is a wreck, and it takes the guy-friendly advice of another guy to make the first guy fix things. Which is to say, the drama (and the comedy) of Looking for Eric is wholly masculine and fairly clichéd, but that doesn't keep the film from being a worthwhile exploration of its well-worn tropes. For one thing, it's really quite funny, in that dry, sarcastic, British way of being funny - there's not really anybody who doesn't like British humor anymore, is there? - which forgives a lot of familiarity. And unlike in It's a Free World..., the humor and the Ken Loachiness of the piece don't work at cross-purposes to each other.

Now, by now means is "youth gang violence is a problem, and so is the masculine fear of fidelity and responsibility" a terribly profound statement to make, certainly for a filmmaker only three years gone from the glorious The Wind That Shakes the Barley, but I do admire that Loach and Laverty are take what really amounts to nothing but a more literate than usual lad comedy, and inject a healthy note of social realism into it. And there are certain other pleasures to the film: its poignant consideration of how sports factor into the lives of the common folk, rendering in gentle detail how Eric Bishop's appreciation of the poetry of Eric Cantana's profession is perhaps the most beautiful thing that has ever been part of his life. The film's argument that sports heroes are role models to grown men as much as to kids is also a rather touching observation; in this sense, Looking for Eric is the exact opposite of a film like the American Big Fan, surpassingly generous towards its protagonist and allowing him to genuinely find Cantana as inspiring as another man might find Gandhi.

When the film is over, that's pretty much all that it adds up to, but in a sense it's actually quite a lot: a man who has made a lot of mistakes - certainly, all of the many problems facing him when the story begins are his fault, in one way or another - gets to repair them. The film makes no judgments, does not look down on him. It is a loving, forgiving movie, and it manages to achieve that without having to sidestep telling the truth about what a run-down, dead-end life looks like. It's really not all that far a stretch for the man who once upon a time made the classic, hopelessly grim Kes; age and time have just made him a little bit more good-natured.