Quirky: the one adjective that if employed in a synopsis or review should cause any thoughtful person to avoid a film so described, and a perfect kiss-of-death salvo for “Eagle vs. Shark.” This crowd-pleasing New Zealand indie, developed from the Sundance Director’s and Screenwriter’s Labs (from which the similar “Me and You and Everyone You Know” emerged) and plucked from the vine by savvy Miramax, is the latest in a recent trend of offbeat, adorable stillbirths about families of barely lovable misfits learning valuable life lessons in a world of kitschy crap. The parade of cute begins right off the bat when fast-food employee Lily (Loren Horsley), an awkward collection of Church Lady grimaces masquerading as a “sensitive dreamer,” practices a marriage proposal into her mirror, thus demonstrating that the quirky indie’s favorite go-to device – the head-on camera shot at some “ka-razee” character’s goofy countenance – is in actuality a symptom of rampant narcissism.
In “Eagle vs. Shark” the world only exists for director Taika Waititi to gawk at in stilted compositions mocking tacky decor and drab suburban anomalies. Yet a single element reveals the condescension barely hidden beneath the surface quirk of eccentric losers (the brother who does dreadful imitations, the mentally disturbed man with a porno fetish), wacky fashions (Megadeth t-shirts, track suits, mullets), fey indie rock (The Phoenix Foundation), and needless stop-motion animation inserts: That element is Lily’s love interest, Jarrod (Jemaine Clement), a lesser Napoleon Dynamite lacking even the slightest shred of charm. Jarrod may very well be the most hateful film protagonist in recent memory – spazoidic, violent, arrogant, delusional, petty, mean, disgusting, rude, self-obsessed.
As emotionally stunted as Lily is, it makes no sense that she would fall for this video-game nerd and follow him to his hometown where he plots a “revenge mission” on the high school bully who, we can only imagine, made him into the terrible person he is today. But it also makes little sense that we’re supposed to care about the irredeemable Jarrod’s supposed maturation after Waititi spends the entire film laughing at his pathetic attempts to win approval from his father. “Napoleon Dynamite” worked because there was compassion amidst the grotesquerie; “Eagle vs. Shark” nearly concludes with Jarrod trying to beat up a man in a wheelchair. No amount of animal costume parties can make up for that.
“Napoleon Dynamite” was a pleasant aberration, in that it conveyed at least a whiff of humanity for its annoying protagonist. Otherwise, the quirky indie is wrong for our time. The insular arrested development peddled by these films signals the regression of their makers and target audience into the Never Neverland of self-deprecating navel-gazing and ridicule. A calamitous, unquirky universe exists too conspicuously inside and outside our selves, and beyond the suffocating confines of ironic amusement, for this film to be the least bit relevant or amusing.