Call it geek chic or designer dorkiness, but nerds have become quite the pop culture cause celeb. Perhaps it has something to do with our growing tech savvy demographic, or the PC pronouncements against being cliquish, bullying or superior. Indeed, in a world where everyone is considered equal, smarts offset by social awkwardness is one of the few ways to significantly stand out. Thanks in large part to the cult phenomenon Napoleon Dynamite and its quintessential quote heavy narrative, the uber dweeb has spread his and/or her entertainment possibilities worldwide. Even far off and secluded New Zealand has come up with their own cinematic celebration of the communal outsider. Unfortunately, while quite engaging, the enigmatically named Eagle vs. Shark forgets a couple of the key rules for navigating the weirdo waters.
Our story centers around two misguided losers. Lily works at a greasy spoon burger joint, her attempts to fit in constantly thwarted by the blond hair and buxom set. But everyday, around noon, she stops pouting and perks up. You see, Jarrod from down the local media palace enjoys taking his lunch at Lily’s place of employment, and she’s desperate to catch his eye. Naturally, he’s oblivious. However, an invitation to his animal costume party provides our heroine her in. Over the course of the affair, the two fall for each other as only the insular and sheltered can – over a Mortal Combat like video game – and before we know it, they are off on an adventure to Jarrod’s hometown. Seems Mr. Misfit has been training to get revenge on the bully who picked on him all throughout high school. Thanks to Lily – and her brother’s available car – the couple can kill two confrontations with one trip. The first being Jarrod’s tormentor. The second is his dramatically dysfunctional family.
All of this might sound like fodder for some sort of hilarious comedy of mis-manners, but the truth is far more telling. Eagle vs. Shark is more interested in whimsy than wit, and when it comes to milking its characters for a little goofball charm, we are stuck with mostly peculiarities vs. personalities. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Movies that comprehend the difference between bringing dimension and merely mocking its principles usually end up winning the quirkiness war. But in the case of Eagle vs. Shark, the people behind the production just don’t know when to quit. Unlike our leads, who seem purposefully oblique and ambiguous, the rest of the surrounding support is overwritten to the point of near distraction. It’s as if the script (touted as workshopped at the exclusive Sundance Director's and Screenwriter's Labs) was purposefully fused over to add more than the average daily requirement of eccentricities.
Oddly enough, it’s not a novice mistake. Writer/director Taika Cohen was nominated in 2005 for a Best Short Film, Live Action Oscar (for his love in a pub Two Cars, One Night) and even though Eagle vs. Shark is his first feature, he’s someone assured of his style and overall approach. He’s also a filmmaker that wears his influences obviously and proudly. Michel Gondry gets a visual shout out via some slyly compelling stop motion sequences, and Jared Hess’s flat plane symmetry is present in abundance. You can even see snatches of the Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson among the frequent flights of originality. Granted, all of this works in Cohen’s favor, fostering an optical richness and filmic texture that is hard to deny. Doubt its occupants, but we can sense – and sometimes smell - the environment these outcasts exist in.
This doesn’t mean however that Cohen gets everything right. There are a couple of minor missteps in Eagle vs. Shark, elements both internal and external that prevent us from completely enjoying the joke. On the inside is actor Jermaine Clement. One of two leads in the highly publicized HBO Summer series Flight of the Conchords, this part-Maori performer is very irritating as Jarrod. It’s not just his behavior - a good way to describe him would be as a glorified gasbag – it’s his entire tact. Jarrod has absolutely no redeeming qualities. He is jealous, petty, spiteful, arrogant, deluded, dull, and incapable of any real human emotion. And the sad thing is, Cohen never once tries to redeem him. As a matter of fact, this is another instance where you can feel the filmmaker pushing the material further and further into the extreme. When Jarrod finally faces his bully, the joke may be rather obvious, but the follow-up is borderline cruel.
Which leads to the other outer element. If Napoleon Dynamite is indeed part of Cohen’s blueprint for this project, he forgot to take into account one of Jared Hess’ greatest gifts – comedic context. All the characters in the 2004 title are not desperate or disposable. No, part of the joy in said film was the fact that Napoleon and his family/friends were blissfully unaware of their loser status. They never once acted like the dregs of humanity’s pecking order. In fact, they stood proud and defiant in the face of constant rejection and ridicule. In Eagle vs. Shark, everyone is sour and dour, ready to wallow in enormous vats of self-pity for the sake of their own selfish designs. Kip and Napoleon fight because they believe each is better than the other. Jarrod lives like a lox in his dead brother’s shadow, convinced he can never be as good as him. Naturally, his equally depressed family only aids and abets his misery.
By this point you must be wondering, is there any reason to visit this frequently funny pity party. Luckily, the answer is a resounding yes – and her name is Loren Horsley. With a face always screwed up like she’s afraid to breath, and an accent so thick its like listening to the countryside speak, her Lily is a light in what is sometimes a very dark and disturbed arena. True, she herself is a mess of issues, but she’s also hopelessly optimistic, and when cheerfulness won’t do, she perseveres with the best of them. Her role is key to whatever success Eagle vs. Shark generates, mostly because we find ourselves identifying with and rooting for her happiness. Even when we see that the ultimate end may be as part of Jarrod’s jaundiced existence, we still have hope that Lily is the one that can turn him around. While it’s rare for a single performer or performance to save an entire movie, Ms. Horsley does so – with a little help from a few of the stalwart supporting cast.
And again, she’s enough to get us over some of the film’s more problematic gaffs. In fact, in the battle between the Eagle (Jarrod’s favorite animal) and Shark (Lily’s power creature), the Discovery Channel’s favorite man eater wins every time. This is really a chick flick redesign of the Napoleon Dynamite formula, a movie that many will find far more satisfying and deep than the mannered adventures of Pedro’s mop topped campaign manager. But sometimes, the wrong tone can completely undermine a well meaning movie, and in conjunction with an aggravating male lead, Taika Cohen may have found a real recipe for rejection. But thanks to a delicate little flower who believes herself to be a ‘dangerous person’, there is more to love than loathe about this New Zealand zaniness. And feebs of the world will have a new geek goddess to worship.