Eagle vs. Shark (New Zealand, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Eagle vs. Shark appears to be vying for the Napoleon Dynamite audience. However, while there are superficial similarities, this production, from New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi, is unlikely to achieve the same kind of embrace by geekdom that was lavished upon Jared Hess' feature. There are two primary reasons. In the first place, the semi-comedic tone of Eagle vs. Shark is more uneven than that of Napoleon Dynamite. The film offers some laughs but there are times when the dead zones between them are uncomfortable to endure. The bigger issue relates to the characters. Like the protagonist in Napoleon Dynamite, the main characters in Eagle vs. Shark are quirky and socially inept. Unfortunately, they are also morons, and it becomes increasingly difficult to care one way or another about characters who act like they have undergone frontal lobotomies.

The awkward courtship between Lily (Loren Horsley) and Jarrod (Jermaine Clement) begins when she takes his lunch order at the fast food joint where she works. Lily has been observing him from afar and it's the highlight of her day when he asks her for a hamburger. She offers him free fries, which he accepts, and free cheese, which he declines because he can't eat cheese. Later, Lily shows up at Jarrod's costume party. She's dressed as a shark and he's in an eagle costume. They play video games. They kiss and have sex. Then they embark upon a road trip to Jarrod's home town. A bully from high school is coming home and Jarrod wants to pay him back for past insults. Lily meets Jarrod's family and she continues bonding with them even after she is unceremoniously dumped. Jarrod is more interested in pursuing the ex of his dead brother than maintaining a relationship with the girl in the shark costume.

Waititi wants us to become interested in the relationship between the protagonists, but it's a tough sell. Not only are they unlikable but they're stupid. The former characteristic is difficult to overcome, especially in a would-be romantic comedy, but the latter represents a greater challenge. There is a difference between someone who is extremely socially unskilled and someone with a low IQ, and both Lily and Jarrod cross that line. They end up coming across more as exaggerated caricatures than human beings. On those occasions when the movie is funny, it's primarily because we're laughing at the characters.

It's hard to judge the performances of the leads because it's unclear how much of the movie's failure is the result of the screenplay and direction. Certainly, Loren Horsely and Jermaine Clement inhabit Lily and Jarrod. They don't imbue them with much humanity, but that could be more of an indictment of the film than of their acting. All the supporting performers play equally broad roles, many of whom might be at home in a David Lynch movie. This isn't necessarily a good thing. There are times when viewing Eagle vs. Shark is akin to watching a freak show.

In the end, do we care whether Lily and Jarrod find love? Not really. Each of them may experience a fleeting epiphany, but she's far too insecure and he's far too self-centered for anything that develops between them to last. There's a certain insincerity in the movie's tone (bordering on cruelty toward the characters) that wasn't evident in Napoleon Dynamite. Waititi believes he's making a cute fable about two social outcasts finding each other, but what ends up on screen is often awkward and unpalatable. There are occasional nice moments scattered throughout, but this is mostly a big, uncomfortable cartoon focused on the twisted attraction between two caricatures.

Eagle vs. Shark (New Zealand, 2007)

Director: Taika Waititi
Cast: Loren Horsley, Jermaine Clement
Screenplay: Taika Waititi
Cinematography: Adam Clark
Music: The Phoenix Foundation
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 2007-06-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1