Though comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite are unavoidable, New Zealand writer-director Taika Waititi can only be accused of partially imitating Jared Hess' overpraised (and contemptuous) nerd-fest. While it's filled with similarly quirky and socially inept characters, Eagle vs. Shark has an underlying sweetness that gives its story a bit more depth and decency. Unfortunately, the twitchy combination of twee sensibility and self-conscious geekery can't quite compensate for its overall lack of inventiveness.
Lily (co-writer Loren Horsley) is a painfully timid fast-food cashier with a mad crush on video game store clerk, Jarrod (Jemaine Clement). Crashing his "Come As Your Favorite Animal" party, she ends up sleeping with the slack-jawed blowhard and inexplicably falls in love. Their relationship is tested when Jarrod reveals his deepest secret: He has vowed to take revenge on the bully who tormented him in high school. So, off to his family's home they go, where Jarrod promptly dumps her to ready himself for battle. Stranded, Lily bonds with his eccentric family and learns the sad truth behind her boyfriend's compulsive need to be macho.
Though there are some wonderfully offbeat moments and a few delicate grace notes, Eagle vs. Shark can never quite decide whether to sympathize or make fun of its characters. As a result the film simultaneously moves and frustrates its audience.
Napoleon Dynamite had no such qualms, mercilessly mocking its clueless freaks and geeks. In contrast, Jarrod is such an insufferable dick it's difficult to understand why Lily would put up with him ... except to keep the plot moving. Whatever hidden virtues she sees in her self-centered sweetheart she keeps to herself and one begins to wonder where the line between insecurity and pathology ends.
Remarkably, Horsley's endlessly patient Lily nearly makes it work. Acting as both an emotional and comic anchor, the actress's understated responses earn both laughs and empathy. Waititi has the good sense to recognize Horsely's charms and uses her to save more than a few ill-conceived gags.
Clement, who stars on HBO's Night of the Conchords a lo-fi mix of Tenacious D attitude and Dan Bern's neo-folkie shtick gives Jarrod just the right mix of arrogance and ignoramus to amuse but never really creates a flesh-and-blood character.
Unlikely to be embraced as a hilarious foray into geekdom, Eagle vs. Shark suffers from the kind of thematic schizophrenia the Sundance workshop where it was birthed tends to breed. Fitfully entertaining but too precious by half, Waititi and Horsely are onto something, but it's not clear just what that is. One thing can be said in the movie's defense: It proves Peter Jackson isn't the only filmmaker living in New Zealand.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.)
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.