“Eagle vs. Shark” might have seemed amusingly original, albeit in a self-consciously quirky, indie-movie kind of way, if “Napoleon Dynamite” didn’t already exist.
Trouble is, “Napoleon Dynamite” continues to enjoy cult-favorite status three years after its release. People still wear those “Vote for Pedro” T-shirts, you know. And they shouldn’t.
In “Eagle vs. Shark” the overt strangeness and deadpan humor have been moved to New Zealand, and the misfits are about 10 years out of high school, but writer-director Taika Waititi sets up the same formula: He ogles his characters for their peculiarity, supposedly with affection but in a way that instead comes off as condescending and mocking.
With head-on camerawork and perky, non-threatening pop tunes, Waititi follows the sad, lonely lives of fast-food employee Lily (Loren Horsley) and Jarrod (Jemaine Clement), the crude video game expert she secretly adores. In place of Jon Heder’s famous ’fro, Clement wears a chopped-up mullet.
Lily shows up at Jarrod’s dress-as-your-favorite-animal party (Jarrod had actually invited Lily’s cuter co-worker) in a makeshift shark costume. Jarrod goes as — you guessed it — an eagle. But she impresses him with her video game skills, and soon enough Jarrod grudgingly allows Lily to be his girlfriend.
He invites her to travel with him to his hometown, where he plans to confront the childhood bully who tormented him. There she meets Jarrod’s dad, who uses a wheelchair even though he doesn’t need it, as well as Jarrod’s sister and brother-in-law, who sell gaudy warm-up suits and cheap cosmetics.
And that’s about it. They hang out in this small town and goofy stuff happens. No one ever changes, there is no great arc. Each actor is constrained within his or her own one-note role. Lily plays with a hula-hoop in the backyard; Jarrod pitches a tent so the two can camp out side-by-side in sleeping bags.
Horsley, who had developed a character that provided the inspiration for Lily, gets a couple of moments to break out of the movie’s rigid tonal structure and show some personality. She’s also pretty much the only source of sweetness and warmth; the other shows up later and we won’t give it away.
But Clement is stuck in an inherently unlikable, seemingly irredeemable role — and we don’t mean in a smart, funny, “Seinfeld” kind of way. Jarrod is just a rude, arrogant, crass bore. He’s abusive and thoughtless and consistently so. And yes, it’s probably all bravado built up over the years to disguise how insecure and self-loathing he truly is, but still.
When he sighs and moans to Lily, “Damn it, I’m too complex,” you wish it were actually true. At least that might make him feel like an intriguing — and truly original — character.