Written by Caballero Oscuro
Eagle vs. Shark has often been referred to as a New Zealand version of Napoleon Dynamite, and it’s a fair comparison in principle. Both films feature nerd love between oddballs so far out on the fringe of society that they’re barely recognizable as human, with most of the laughs coming from witnessing the unbelievable situations they find to be completely normal. To wit: Eagle vs. Shark really gets started when the mousy, newly fired fast-food clerk Lily crashes a costume party hosted by not-so-lovable loser Jarrod, an infantile gathering whose biggest draw is a primitive video-game fighting challenge. To see “grown-ups” in cheesy homemade animal costumes determinedly standing in line to take their turns in video game battle is to witness a dork subculture our forefathers certainly never dreamed of in their worst nightmares.
Lily (Loren Horsely) seems like a nice enough girl, but she’s a social misfit who struggles to relate to others, finding security only in her relationship with her brother and her budding interest in her restaurant’s frequent customer, Jarrod. She doesn’t seem to have any real interests or hobbies of her own; she’s just searching for a connection with a kindred spirit. This leaves her character a bit bland, but also leaves plenty of room for Jarrod to color outside the lines. The film is mostly told from Lily’s point of view, but once she finds herself with Jarrod (“falls in love” seems too much of a stretch), she quickly learns that even needy losers can be complete jerks as boyfriends.
Jarrod (Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords) is a man-child, plain and simple. He’s emotionally and developmentally stunted, existing in some ongoing adolescent state that froze around the time of his older brother’s death and his frequent humiliation by a high school bully. His father also shut down after his brother’s death, moping around in an unneeded wheelchair and reliving his dead son’s past glories rather than celebrating or even recognizing the daily struggles of his remaining heir. Jarrod knows he’s a disappointment to his dad, and latches on to the brilliant idea that he may win some respect and begin to move his life forward if he confronts his demons. Unfortunately, Jarrod identifies his sole demon as his old high-school nemesis, setting him on a path of rigorous and ridiculous physical training to challenge and defeat the bully.
These romantic and redemptive set-ups offers great material for light, absurd comedy, but the film has some unwelcome darkness to it, mostly in Jarrod’s treatment of Lily. Lily is completely trusting, supportive and devoted, the kind of girl that Jarrod should count his lucky stars to find. Instead, he spends most of the movie ignoring and humiliating her, seemingly oblivious to the hurt he’s causing. When she agrees to travel with him to his hometown for the big fight, he repays her kindness by promptly breaking up with her shortly after their arrival to focus on his training, stranding her at his family’s home with no way to leave. She’s also shocked to meet his unmentioned 9-year-old daughter, as well as discovering the lies he told her about the deaths of his brother and mother. He has absolutely no remorse when confronted with her findings, shrugging off her accusations and continuing on his thoughtless way. Any other girl in the world would hate him for the rest of her life, but for some unknown reason Lily still cares for him. It seems like writer/director Taika Cohen was attempting to make more comedy fodder through Lily’s horrific treatment by Jarrod, but ultimately it just destroys the empathy viewers could build for Jarrod. Ironically, the only way he gets back some of that empathy is through the equally dark treatment he gets from his father, a relationship that is wisely never played for laughs.
Cohen incorporates a few quirky animated interludes that give the production a slight Michel Gondry feel, adding some surprising visual flourish to the story. He gets great performances out of his funny cast, and he packs his sets with enough nerd regalia to give them a completely realistic feel. It’s clear he has a strong and original voice, but one that may need a bit of further refinement to reach true greatness.
The DVD extras include the de rigueur deleted scenes and outtakes, although in this film’s case they’re definitely worth watching and good for some bonus laughs. There’s also a music video by The Phoenix Foundation, the fine New Zealand band who supplied most of the film’s songs. Check their 2007 CD release Horsepower as well, it’s worth tracking down.