They say it's impossible to capture lightning in a bottle. Such a sentiment is usually voiced whenever an out of left field film scores with an unsuspecting movie going public. When the glorious dork fest Napoleon Dynamite hit theaters back in 2004, no one imagined its awkward geek chic would resonate with audiences. When it did, however, the mimics started lining up to leech off its success. One clear copycat is the calculated Kiwi blunder Eagle vs. Shark. While not a completely horrible film, it does have one massive miscue that more or less undermines everything else. While writer/director Taika "Cohen" Waititi can be proud of getting his own unique vision translated onto the silver screen, viewers may not be so enamored of his arch, overwritten characters. Indeed, the difference between the leads illustrates the positives, and the problems, with the film as a whole.
Lily works at the local Meaty Boy, a fast food restaurant visited everyday by electronics shop employee Jarrod. She is madly in love with him. He doesn't know she exists. When he invites a co-worker to his animal themed party, Lily swipes the pass and just shows up. Jarrod, initially wary of the gal, gives in when she shows off an amazing video gaming prowess. Soon, they're a reluctant couple. When Jarrod needs a lift back to his home town, Lily offers her brother's car - and her brother. All three head into the New Zealand countryside, where our hero hopes to settle the score with his former high school bully. Of course, dysfunction surrounds his remaining family there. His mother is gone, his father is devastated over the death of his older brother, and his sister and brother-in-law love to rub Jarrod's loser status in his face. Lily supports him, though, even when it looks like her newfound beau has eyes for another. It will all come down to a battle between the past and the present, the lost and the living, the Eagle vs. Shark.
Maybe it's a cultural thing. Maybe, personalities and problems that resonate as quirky and amiably idiosyncratic with a New Zealander seem silly and slightly mean spirited to an American viewer. Granted, there are some stunning similarities when it comes to geek obsessions, interfamilial rivalries, and the painful ache of loneliness. But when compared to other offerings that champion the outsider and suggest a subtle human consistency between the 'normal' and the nerd, Eagle vs. Shark fails to add up. It's a genial enough jaunt, showing us sides of another country we probably never considered. But the title icons - the fragile, almost empty Lily and the sadly shortsighted Jarrod - offer such striking contrasts in character likeability, let alone approaches to pathos, that writer/director Taika "Cohen" Waititi can't quite figure out what to do with them when they're together. So instead, he relies on stop motion animation, pointless plot nonsequitors, and the performance acumen of his cast to take us through the various peaks and valleys. Sadly, we are down much more than up.
None of this is Loren Horsley's fault. She's fabulous as Lily, a misplaced little woman who can't seem to connect with those around her. Mousy to the point of being almost invisible to the surrounding world, hers is a personality we can relate to and support. We want to see her win, to find love and acceptance in a situation that can't seem to appreciate her specialness. That she focuses on jerk ass Jarrod is not the point - at least, not initially. Her vision of the man is marred by typical unrequited heartstrings. Besides, there are lovely moments throughout their indirect courtship (Lily losing a videogame on purpose, her attempts at showing Jarred how nonchalant she is). The minute the revenge narrative kicks in, however, the balance of power shifts. The movie suddenly becomes a dunce-capped Death Wish, with our so-called hero hoping to kick the snot out of an old bully. No matter that he's old enough to appear absolutely foolish in the pursuit, but something even more unsettling occurs. Jarred starts to erode the movie's magic, pushing Lily in the background where she definitely doesn't belong.
Actor Jermaine Clement may be a talented bloke. His HBO comedy series Flight of the Conchords sure has dork nation in a tizzy. But he's not an effective leading man, and he comes across as shallow and quite reprehensible for most of the running time. If you can get behind what Clement is doing, then you'll adore this film. But if like this critic, you cringed every time the self centered dolt opened his whiny little yap, Eagle vs. Shark becomes a scattershot entertainment. When Lily is learning the ropes of the real world, experiencing approval and gratitude from people for perhaps the first time, the movie is magic. When Jarrod is preening, putting on an action man act for the sake of no one but himself, the film loses focus. Indeed, this is a 50/50 proposition. Somewhere along the Sundance Workshop line, the advisors forgot to mention the concept of keeping your leads interesting and identifiable. For Lily, Waititi clearly succeeds. But Jarrod seems lifted from another screenplay all together, a work where weakness is celebrated and self absorption is mandatory. Eagle vs. Shark is still worth a look, just don't expect to be rolling on the floor in uncontrollable laughter.
Offered by Miramax (now a division of Disney) in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, the transfer of Eagle vs. Shark looks much better than the version seen by this critic at a summer screening. The colors are more vibrant, and the details are sharper and more defined. One has to remember that Waititi uses a grab bag approach here. There is stop motion animation and other twee elements added to the standard cinematic standards. Thankfully, the image captures all of it with style and panache.
Unfortunately, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix is nothing special. The back speakers are barely used, and the entire package is only engaged when the numerous musical interludes are present. The song selection - mostly shoe-gazing indie pop - is featureless and formulaic, but they do supplement the storyline well.
Consisting mostly of deleted scenes (nothing special) with optional director's discussion, a music video (interesting) and a full length audio commentary (more on this in a moment), the bonus features offered as part of this DVD presentation are rather underwhelming. Only Waititi's conversation with actress Horsley (by phone from New Zealand) and other members of the cast (not Jermaine Clement, oddly enough) is worth your time. We learn of the film's Sundance roots, the name of the actor who originally essayed the role of Jarrod, and the inspiration for many of the movie's more surreal moments. Indeed, if you want a perfect example of aspirations failing to fully meet results, the alternate narrative track is a wonderful window into Eagle vs. Shark's process. Clearly, what was in Waititi's mind and what's up on the screen are two different, divergent things.
Being in tune with what a filmmaker is attempting is the key to successful outsider cinema. If you're out of step with what's being offered, or if the material itself is too insular, there can't be an easy meeting of the motion picture minds. Those who see themselves in Lily and Jarrod will absolutely adore Eagle vs. Shark. To them, it will paint a portrait interchangeable with the happenstance of everyday existence. On the other hand, individuals who have long stopped wondering about their place in the cosmic carnival will probably be bored. To them, this pair of amiable miscreants will be nothing more than a solid statement of artistic self-indulgence. Trying to find a way to rate such a dichotomy is tough, but since Lily ends up being a winning woman of determined dimensions, a Recommended rating is warranted. If Jarrod was the main focus here, the movie would slip into the Skip It category rather easily. In many ways, the title choice is apropos - this is really a battle between elements that are good vs. aspects that just don't work. Eagle vs. Shark is definitely a clash of characters, and creative conceits.