'Eagle Versus Shark' flirts with the formulaic

Posted: June 22, 2007

"Eagle Versus Shark" is part of an emerging genre whose characters make the Kevin Smith/Richard Linklater slackers of yore seem like young Republicans.

Its nerdy protagonists are cut from the same plaid-and-stripes cloth as those in "Napoleon Dynamite" - comic misfits who live in the margins, hanging out with goofball relatives, seeking the company of like-minded outcasts who help them deal with the tyranny of the "normal" world.

The imported "Eagle Versus Shark" shows that the "Dynamite" dynamic is alive and well in New Zealand - Kiwi rocker Jemaine Clement stars as Jarrod, a store clerk, vid-game obsessive and keeper of an unbelievably bad haircut who falls in love with a wallflower (Loren Horsley).

Their courtship is clumsy and blunt. He blurts out: "Do you want to have six?" and he's not offering her a half-dozen cans of beer. ("Six" is New Zealand for "sex.")

They have a brief moment of nerds-in-love bliss before he drags her off to meet his family back home. There, the relationship erodes as he immerses himself in a vendetta against the high school bully who taunted him years ago.

The deadpan visuals, the oddball families - Jared Hess is obviously an influence. So is Michel Gondry. "Eagle Versus Shark" uses stop-motion animation to punctuate and link different sections of the film, much as Gondry did in "The Science of Sleep."

In aggregate, characters in all of these movies are having a tough time making the jump from childhood to adulthood. The leads in "Eagle Versus Shark" seem particularly stuck - stalled out well into their 20s and perhaps early 30s.

It's their adulthood that makes their maladjustment feel, at times, less like comedy and more like a look at an untreated psychological problem. In that context, when you start building comedy around impulses that are sexual and violent, it can be borderline creepy.

There is also in the narrative of "Eagle," and "Napoleon Dynamite," and just about anything by Wes Anderson, the idea that quirks in each of these characters arise from a family tragedy.

In the past, this death-in-the-family element has made such characters pitiable, even likable, but it's starting to feel like a device, and a cheap one at that.

"Eagle Versus Shark" redeems itself with a generous spirit and a good heart, but as the tones and narratives of these films harden into formula, we move from kitsch to calculation. Time to move on. *

Produced by Ainsley Gardiner and Cliff Curtis, written and directed by Taika Waititi, music by the Phoenix Foundation, distributed by Miramax Films.

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