There’s no way to avoid mentioning it, so let’s get this out of the way: Eagle vs. Shark is a helluva lot like Napoleon Dynamite. The debut of New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi is a study in, well, studying: everything from its characters to its tone to plot turns ape Jarod Hess’ film. Workshopped at the Sundance Filmmaker Lab, Waititi’s script is so carefully precious that it will likely grate no matter what your opinion of the other film.
Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) is a Kiwi gaming-store employee with a butchered mullet, thick lips, and tinted glasses. (They’re arguably rose-colored, but it’d take more than that detail to give this character any depth.) The story, though, is told through the bug-eyes of Lily (Loren Horsley). She lives with her brother Damien (Joel Tobeck), and works as a cashier at the fast-food joint Meaty Boy. Her coworkers don’t like her, and she spends each shift watching the clock, waiting for the moment Jarrod makes his regular lunch stop. Lily kicks customers out of her queue to make way for her crush, only to have him choose to wait in the line of a more attractive clerk. One day, though, Jarrod’s got no choice but to give Lily his order. “Do you want the big fries? It’s free!” she asks him. “Do you want cheese? It’s free!”
Lily’s eagerness bewilders Jarrod, who then requests she pass along a party invitation to Jenny, the other cashier. Jenny couldn’t care less, but Lily retrieves the crumpled paper and drags Damien to the shindig. Revelers are supposed to come dressed as their favorite animals. (Also, Jarrod points out, “My friend has a helmet, and he’s going to let us chuck shoes at his head.”) Jarrod’s an eagle; Lily’s the shark. Jarrod thinks her costume is pretty cool, and Lily suddenly becomes really interesting when she shows off her virtual combat skills in a video-game competition, eliminating all the boys while fighting under the moniker “Dangerous Person.” After the party, Jarrod seduces her in a manner befitting his strenuous, mouth-breathing oddness: “Do you want to kiss?” “Yep.” “On the lips, then?” “Yep.” “Do you want to have sex?” “Um, yep?” Following their minute-long encounter, Jarrod crank-calls a former high school nemesis.
Eagle vs. Shark‘s humor leans almost completely on every character’s misfitness. (And it is every character.) Lily, at least, manages to be intermittently likable. Her early scenes—acting out an imagined boyfriend’s profession of love in the mirror, giggling along with a flirtatious couple whose conversation she can’t hear—are genuinely funny. She also becomes the closest the film’s got to a three-dimensional human being when she accompanies Jarrod on a trip back home to meet his family. (The trip is actually planned so Jarrod can exact revenge on the aforementioned nemesis, though.) Napoleon may have had an unusual clan, but Jarrod’s is rather pitiable, especially his dad (Brian Sergent), who’s pale, wheelchair-bound, and harbors a decidedly unamusing resentment toward Jarrod for reasons eventually revealed. He’s an angry cartoon until Lily starts spending time with him on her own.
But Horsley doesn’t come out unscathed. In order to disguise her prettiness—for filmic outsiders can’t merely be awkward, can they?—the actress forces her eyes wide and continually twists her mouth. This weird tic quickly becomes one of the more irritating aspects of the movie; Lily’s tendency toward utter passiveness is another. Jarrod, on the other hand, isn’t allowed any redeeming qualities: He’s angry (because of depression, he says, that “makes me pretty intense,” ha ha), he’s arrogant (he claims he looks like Hugh Jackman), and he lies about Lily to impress his family (“Lily’s a dancer”). He also does his best to reject and belittle Lily once she’s followed him home to observe his showdown with the high school bully. (Clement reveals a gift for comedy in his HBO project, Flight of the Conchords, but he’s intolerable in Jarrod’s skin.)
To be fair, Eagle vs. Shark does manage a few affecting moments as its plot deals with the topics of suicide and the importance of family. Waititi occasionally cuts his live nonaction with crude animation of bugs and flowers. One of the more touching scenes comes near the end, with a pair of discarded apples meeting and sitting next to each other. The idea behind this image, and, ostensibly, the entire movie is unconditional love, and as with Napoleon Dynamite, the filmmaker may feel genuine affection for his characters. But with so many jokes about self-delusion, physical mishaps, and embarrassing revelations, it’s hard to buy. Check the movie’s taglines—“Opposites. Unattractive.” and “There’s someone for everyone… apparently,” and there’s no mistake: It’s time to laugh at the nerds again.