The only measure of a comedy is whether you laughed, and how hard. As comedies go, the Kiwi import Eagle vs Shark, doesn't register more than halfway up the comedy meter. Writer-director Taika Waititi
manages a sprinkle of chuckles, a couple of guffaws, but, mostly, while watching it, I felt as if I were a polite judge at an audition, unable to leave or bark "Next!" for fear of hurting its feelings. It's offbeat, I'll give you that. Terminally offbeat. But it rests a bit too comfortably on its geeked-out charms and sweet intentions to ever really carve out an "attitude" for itself, or come up with enough inventive ideas to make it worthwhile.
Everything Eagle vs Shark tries to do, Napoleon Dynamite already did, and did better, funnier. Dynamite has proven itself as the contemporary standard-bearer for this sort of comedy -- the absurdist geek romance, deadpan in tone, and peopled with quirky but sweet-natured characters. Article continues below
Like Dynamite, Eagle vs Shark involves romantic pair-ups, and a plot riffing on teenage redemption. In Dynamite, said redemption was about winning the high-school class presidency. Eagle vs Shark's concerns a video-game store clerk's fanatical vow of revenge against the bully who tormented him in high school. Sporting a god-awful mullet and the dorkiest of glasses (standard geek-wear, I should say; Dynamite featured an impossibly bad afro), the slack-jawed Jarrod (Jemaine Clement
) takes up with Lily (Loren Horsley
), the wallflower-shy burger-joint cashier who's always had a mad -- and inexplicable -- crush on him. They're years removed from youth, but both bear losses from then that continue to haunt them; Lily lost both her parents as a child, and now lives with her cheery brother Damien (Joel Tobeck
), while Jarrod's brother's death is what informs his revenge-seeking.
As soon as the romance is established, Waititi shifts into themes of family as Lily accompanies Jarrod to his home, where he travels to mete out his payback. Everyone here is expectedly off their rocker -- Jarrod's sister and brother-in-law are hapless entrepreneurs, his wheelchair-bound father (Brian Sergent
) is continually pissed-off, and his dim-bulb friend Mason (Cohen Holloway) is one step above certified retardation. If you're aiming for "quirky," this is a potential goldmine, but it's "fool's gold" we get as Waititi never ventures too far from the safe zone, and retreads jokes that are about as funny as a middling SNL sketch. And what is Vinny (Morag Hills), Jarrod's nine-year-old daughter, in all her quirky, bespectacled cuteness, if not an easy bid for as much, a la Little Miss Sunshine or Jerry Maguire, for God's sake?
Once home, Jarrod spends his time gearing up for his big fight, all karate-chops and nunchucks, and bidding for his estranged father's affection. The plot trajectory takes us through the fracturing of Jarrod and Lily's romance, a romantic interloper in the guise of Jarrod's late-brother's fiancée, and Lily's discovery of the skeletons in Jarrod's closet, before the warm-and-fuzzy third-act, boy-girl/father-son make-up.
Waititi's strategy is to populate the story with as many odd ducks as he can, rather than cut deep, and create unique comic situations. There's the occasional surprise (the reveal of Jarrod's bully being the standout), a clever sight gag or two, but these are few, far between. At best, this is a pleasant affair, but a drab, predictable one, with king-geek Jarrod a stultifying bore. Rising above the material is Horsley, bright-eyed and winning as Lily. She's the movie's comic and emotional anchor. More than once, Waititi relies on her comic timing and acuity to find his scene's pulse. Without her, Eagle vs Shark could well have been D.O.A.