Eagle vs. Shark (2007) dir. Taika Cohen
Starring: Loren Horsley, Jemaine Clement
On DVD this week is “Eagle vs. Shark” a small New Zealand film that has made the long journey to North America. It’s rare for an authentic non-Peter Jackson kiwi film to get a theatrical release in North America. So there must have been something special about the film I thought. Perhaps it’s a unique cultural export of the quirky New Zealand sense of humour. Instead, I was surprised to find out it was “Napoleon Dynamite” with kiwi accents.
Lily is a shy waif who works in a fast food burger joint. After years of obsessive longing of a frequent customer, she finally decides to gather up the courage to make contact with the guy. The guy is Jarrod, a completely maladjusted loser who lives in his own mind. Lily gets invited to Jarrod’s video/costume party. Lily arrives as her favourite animal (shark). Jarrod is dressed as, of course, eagle. The party is a new realm of loserdom - an annual video game fighting tournament to see who gets to challenge Jarrod as the master gamer. Lily proves to be worthy and trashes her opponents. When she goes up against Jarrod she is so smitten with him she blows the match on purpose. Lily’s persistence pays off and soon they enter into the most matter-of-fact courtships in cinema history. You have to watch the scene – it’s completely unromantic yet cute and touching at the same time.
Lily travels with Jarrod to his quaint seaside hometown where Jarrod is to train for a real fight with his high school nemesis who bullied him. Lily fits in well with Jarrod’s equally screwed-up family and friends. His sister and brother-in-law sell overstocked athletic apparel from the early 90’s. It’s pathetic and hilarious. The more she learns about Jarrod she becomes as frightened as she is sympathetic to his pathetic life.
The film follows some standard ups and downs of the romantic comedy genre, but at its heart it’s unfortunately a “Napoleon Dynamite” clone, with a dash of “About Schmidt” right down to the costumes, portrait-like shot selection, and quirky electronic and acoustic music score. I guess all these films stem from Wes Anderson, who made loserdom cool. But of course, Anderson deepened and broadened the emotional quotient way beyond both “Dynamite” and “Shark”.
I think both films love their characters equally, but one thing “Eagle” has over “Dynamite” is a backstory. Over the course of the film we come to learn why Jarrod has created this insular world in which he has declared himself king. The rejection of his mother and the suicide of his older brother left him scarred and damaged. Jarrod’s retreat is extreme, but it does provide context for his loserdom. Lily, whom the film’s point of view is taken from, unfortunately isn’t given a backstory. And her obsessive love for Jarrod is never explained, and is completely arbitrary. She has a gigantic heart that desperate wants to love, but why she choose the crass, obnoxious, and egotistical Jarrod is out of character. Perhaps she recognizes his flaws and sees his inner beauty, or perhaps she’s impressed by his ability to deflect all criticism and be happy with himself.
In the end credits I was surprised to see that the film was developed through the Sundance Institute. In fact, “Napoleon Dynamite” premiered at Sundance the same year Taika Cohen’s Oscar nominated short “Two Cars, One Night”. So maybe it was a conscious attempt to recreate that experience. Overall, though it may not be the ‘little film that could’ “Eagle vs. Shark” is a worthy knock off. Enjoy
“Eagle vs. Shark” is available on DVD this week from Alliance Films