Eagle vs. Shark: Offbeat Romantic Comedy from New Zealand

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Unsure whether to mock the story’s socially maladjusted characters or sympathize with them, Eagle vs. Shark offers an equally touching and infuriating experience.

Written and directed by New Zealander Taika Waititi, this offbeat romantic comedy about two hopeless outsiders suggests a filmmaker with a style that echoes the childlike whimsy of Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep) and the painfully geek humor of Napoleon Dynamite. However, despite the movies occasionally heartfelt moments and a great performance by Loren Horsley, Eagle vs. Shark never establishes a consistent tone or attitude, creating a schizophrenic viewing experience.

Lonely fast-food employee Lily (Loren Horsley) has a crush on Jarrod (Jemaine Clement), a sullen misfit who works in the same shopping center. Finagling an invitation to his house party, she impresses him with her skill at video games, and soon they go to bed together. Jarrod treats her rather coldly, but Lily sees something sweet and lovable underneath his hostile exterior.

Then, just as romance begins to take hold, Jarrod announces that he must travel to his hometown to confront the bully who tortured him as an adolescent. Damon (Joel Tobeck), Lilys nerdy but loving brother, offers to drive the two to Jarrods familys house. Once Damon drops them off, Lily discovers some of the roots of Jarrods misanthropy, while Jarrod begins to train for a showdown with his high school nemesis.

Eagle vs. Shark envelops its audience in the world of the so-called geeks, nerds, and losers who live on societys fringes and are marginalized because of their weird behavior or unusual appearance. Writer-director Taika Waititi, working from a story he developed with Horsley, creates a fragile, despondent environment, observing how these outcasts work through their anxieties by bonding with (and sometimes lashing out at) likeminded individuals.

Waititis total immersion into this peculiar subculture offers an opportunity to examine a group of people who are rarely the main characters in fiction. (Occasionally, the characters animosity, self-loathing, and desperate unhappiness recall the early films of Todd Solondz.) But after unearthing this potentially fertile dramatic ground, Eagle vs. Shark seems undecided about how to approach these odd characters, trying different strategies without much confidence in any of them.

The films main problems stems from its conception of Jarrod, played with unapologetic antagonism by Jemaine Clement. Waititi has envisioned Jarrod as an undeniably callous, conceited jerk, the sort of mean-spirited weirdo whom audiences would normally dismiss at first sight. By making him the films central character–as well as the love interest of the pure-hearted, adorable Lily–Waititi forces us to confront Jarrod on his own terms, which is a daring narrative choice.

Unfortunately, while Clement nails Jarrods insolence and casual cruelty, he cant make his basically unlikable character endearing. Waititi appears to be setting up the audience to hate him so that later, when the film reveals tragic elements in his backstory, well reconsider Jarrods prickly exterior. But those later revelations arent enough to compensate for his overriding insufferableness.

One of the central conceits of Eagle vs. Shark is that outcasts are simply the product of unhappy home lives, but Jarrods rampant hostility and self-delusion keep his plight from being sympathetic. While sad, his childhood traumas cannot justify his bad behavior as an adult.

Much more winning is Horsleys construction of Lily, a shy nerd whose preternatural sweetness serves as a shield to protect her from the meanness and disappointment of daily life. The pure love she shows for Jarrod is baffling, but Horsleys sincerity is so powerful that she almost makes a convincing argument for his merits as a boyfriend.

It’s only through Lily does Eagle vs. Shark achieve its tricky balance of laughing at its characters considerable foibles while also loving their quirkiness. Her performance may appear to be one-note, but her ability to get at Lilys underlying sadness while wearing a weary smile to the world is quietly complex and heartrending.

Most of the supporting characters are clichd losers, easy comic buffoons to be ridiculed, but an important exception is Damon, Lilys sensitive brother. Tobeck taps into Damons protective but adoring manner around Lily, perfectly in keeping with a young man who had to look after his younger sister after their parents died.

If the entire film had been brave enough to honor Lily and Damons sincerity and sweetness, Eagle vs. Shark might have been an empathetic portrait of humanitys pariahs. But instead Waititi relentlessly mocks his characters with a disdain that smacks of superiority. He holds on their moments of embarrassment to extend the awkwardness until they become hilariously painful; these scenes feel like cheap shots. At the same time,

Eagle vs. Shark includes cutesy animated interludes meant to be poignant and delicately romantic, but they feel disingenuous when placed against the films prevailing smugness. As its title unintentionally implies, Eagle vs. Shark is very much a movie at war with itself.

Credits

Running time: 87 minutes

Director: Taika Waititi
Production companies: Whenua Films, Unison Films Limited, New Zealand Film Commission
US distribution: Miramax Films
Producers: Ainsley Gardiner, Cliff Curtis
Executive producer: Emanuel Michael
Screenplay: Taika Waititi
Cinematography: Adam Clark
Editor: Jono Woodford-Robinson
Production design: Joe Bleakley
Music: The Phoenix Foundation

Cast

Lily (Loren Horsley)
Jarrod (Jemaine Clement)
Doug (Craig Hall)
Damon (Joel Tobeck)
Jonah (Brian Sergent)
Nancy (Rachel House)