It walks, talks, and fails the posture test like "Napoleon Dynamite," but "Eagle vs. Shark" is no "Napoleon Dynamite." Possessing more comedic skill and imagination in its pinky than anything the Jon Heder trainwreck of 2004 could come up with in its entirety, "Shark' is a picture of assuredly twitchy quirks, but remains a consistent pleaser.
Lily (Loren Horsely) is a timid fast food cashier with a crush on Jarrod (Jemaine Clement), a clerk at the local video game store. Hooking up on the night of Jarrod's animal costume party, the two form a tentative relationship based around Jarrod's nerdly masculinity. Their romance is put to the test when the duo make a trip to Jarrod's family home, where he prepares himself to battle an old high school bully, in the process ignoring Lily, who finds herself bonding with Jarrod's eccentric family.
"Shark" is positively infested with a case of the cutes; either through directorial savvy or plain old Kiwi charm, this cheeky New Zealand import always finds a pathway to some level of endearing satisfaction. Sadly, filmmaker Taika Cohen has his work cut out for him here, as the trail to deadpan irreverence was already used and abused by the aforementioned nightmare known as "Dynamite."
The two films are frighteningly similar; both embrace the culture of society's less socially aware, capturing the high school dork phase as it slowly creeps away from being adorable to a place of concern. The features share a love for set decoration minutiae, stuffing the frame with Jarrod's homemade candle knick-knacks and other intimate character details that will take a hearty DVD pause button workout to fully absorb. "Shark" and "Dynamite" also share a lust for the absurd, no matter the reach.
So what ultimately separates the films? The execution.
"Shark" is a more character-based comedic summer camp, relying heavily on mannered performance and human reveals to extort the jokes. Cohen's script certainly serves up plenty of manufactured oddity, but I never felt coldly manipulated like I was with "Dynamite." "Shark" comes from a more earnest place, and uses more to please than just relying on retro visual aids and blank lead actors. "Shark" might be walking in the deep "Dynamite" footsteps, but it's a gracious picture and infinitely more hilarious.
That appeal is certainly born from Horsely and Clement, who make Lily and Jarrod these curious romantic creatures who have lived in their own isolated worlds for far too long. The performances revel in the idiosyncrasy of Cohen's buttery writing, but they start to take on a life of their own as time passes and the plot thickens, creating two distinct portraits of frightful eccentricity coated in an unexpectedly humane reading of affection.
It doesn't take long for "Shark" to assume some Wes Anderson-like moments of whimsy, seen through brief stop-motion animated sequences that splash some film-student color on the proceedings. Even if he's buried under a mound of bad timing, Cohen has a vision for "Shark" that he maintains with visual eloquence and a wonderful sense of humor all his own. "Shark" is easy to classify, but is impossible to discount on appearance alone; the picture is much too successful for that gloved slap of disrespect.
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