Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, March 3, 2019

Director Report Card: Taika Waititi (2007)

Following the success of his entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Taika Waititi is suddenly a widely beloved director. Of course, up until his big budget entry in a billion dollar franchise, Waititi was mostly only known among fans of weirdo comedies. (At least in America. He's one of New Zealand's most successful native filmmakers.) Does it bother me that a bunch of nerds only known this talented, hilarious guy from the one cape movie he made, to the point that he's asked to direct even more of them? I mean, only so much in the sense that I wish people would seek out obscure, oddball flicks more. As we journey through his cinematic career, we'll get a good sense of Waititi's lovably nutty style.

1. Eagle Vs. Shark

Wikipedia so astutely describes Taika Waititi as having “a variety of artistic interest.” This is apparent in the wide selection of projects he has been involved with over the years. The New Zealander got his start as part of a five-man comedy ensemble called So You're a Man, before forming a smaller comedy group with Jemaine Clement called The Humourbeasts. Waititi has acted, worked in television, and done music. Yet it seems likely his work directing film is what he'll be best remembered for. After being nominated for an Academy Award for his short, “Two Cars, One Night,” he would make his debut feature in 2007 with bizarre romantic-comedy “Eagle Vs. Shark.”

Twenty-something Lily does not have much in her life. Following the death of both of her parents, she lives with her older brother and works a dreary job at a mall fast food place. (Which she's quickly let go from.) That's where she meets Jarrod. An awkward nerd employed at a near-by video game shop, he invites Lily's pretty co-worker to a party, where everyone is instructed to dress as their favorite animal. Lily, who is developing a crush on Jarrod, goes instead. After she performs well at his favorite video game, the two immediately hit it off.  Soon, Lily is pulled along on a road trip with Jarrod, meeting his equally strange family, as he embarks on a quest of vengeance against the person who bullied him in high school.

I first saw “Eagle Vs. Shark” quite a few years ago, through my cable provider's free movies section. (I know that sounds awful but I saw a lot of weird movies that way, honestly.) At the time, the film playing in the background while I did home work, I dismissed it. Waititi's debut struck me as another insufferable indie comedy quirk-fest. The inexplicably popular “Napoleon Dynamite” was still relatively fresh in my mind and this film seemed similar. Granted, this accusation is not totally without basis. The film is loaded with aggressively quirky, cringe comedy. Such as the painfully bad celebrity impersonations Lily's brother performs any time he gets a chance. Or the profanity laden petty arguments Jarrod has with his siblings. Or, honestly, just about every character or line of dialogue in the film.

Re-watching “Eagle Vs. Shark” in 2019 though, the extreme awkwardness and stilted conversation of its main characters suddenly take on a new meaning. I know there's this tendency in certain corners of the internet to try and diagnosis any and every character imaginable as somewhere on the autism spectrum. But I think there's an actual case to be made with Lily. Her social interactions are uncomfortable. She often repeats the same phrase, which it seems she has extensively rehearsed. She has little understanding of humor, as she finds her brother's awful jokes genuinely amusing. She seems unable to read the disinterest most people have in her hobbies, notably with her dispassionate co-workers. She peruses her interests – marine animals, Jarrod himself – with a laser's focus. While the film never describes Lily as neurodivergent, it's a conclusion that's hard to avoid from a modern perspective.

If Lily is autistic, it would contrast in an interesting way with Jarrod. See, Lily's eccentricities are no one's fault, that's just how she is. Jarrod, on the other hand, is an asshole. He meets Lily by assuming her pretty blonde co-worker will want to date him, a gangly and extremely awkward nerd. He makes people at his party compete for the honor of playing a video game with him, a competition he gives himself a trophy for. He constantly brags and builds up his own accomplishes. He lies, claiming he looks like Hugh Jackman or that Lily has performed certain honors. Meanwhile, he treats those around him badly. He negs Lily's own achievements, downplaying her choice of shark as her favorite animal or her superior gaming skills. Sometimes, he's just rude for no reason. Like yelling at Lily's brother after he gives him a rotten apple or picking fights with friends and siblings.

Jarrod is an utterly petty, egotistical man-child and that was obviously the filmmaker's intention. However, Waititi also understands that behavior like this doesn't exist in a vacuum. Pretty early on, it's clear that Jarrod is overcompensating for something. He knows how pathetic he is, even if he's not entirely willing to admit it, and his lies are a smoke-screen to cover that. Once we meet his family, we understand why he feels this way. His brother, the sibling favored by his father, committed suicide a few years back. Dad blamed Jarrod's overall patheticness for his brother's death. His father makes no attempt to show any interest in Jarrod's life and he's relentlessly teased by his sister. This is why Jarrod wants his family to be impressed with Lily. This is why he exaggerates his own lack of skills, why he relates to the proud and predatory eagle. He's desperate to be loved, to be acclaimed for something. His asshole behavior is born of hurt and neglect.

However, “Eagle Vs. Shark” does have a problem. If Lily and Jarrod alone were the weirdos and outcasts in the film's world, the odd romance they create make a lot of sense. Instead, Lily and Jarrod are simply two oddballs in a story seemingly populated exclusively with oddballs. Lily's brother is an eccentric, obsessed with his bad impersonation and weird drawings. Jarrod's family includes his sister and her husband, who have a weird fixation on neon-colored gym suits. His father is confined to a wheelchair (which leads to one of the film's best reveals) and just quietly mumbles through most scenes. His friends, which include a computer expert who obviously knows nothing about computers and a random metal head, are even stranger than him. This is the element where “Eagle Vs. Shark” tries too hard. By making everyone a fucking freak, the freakiness of the protagonists are less interesting and funny.

“Eagle Vs. Shark's” status as an aggressive quirk-fest is evident in ways outside its script and characters. The movie's production design is an aesthetic that is hard to define but is nevertheless easily understood as the “mid-2000s indie comedy” styling. You can see this in many of the film's odd gags. Like the fast food place Lily works at being the strangely named “Meaty Boy,” which sells a burger with the bread on the inside and meat on the outside. Or the “Mortal Kombat” style video game Jarrod plays at his party, where very bizarre characters pummel each other in unbelievable ways. There's a movie theater that resembles a dinosaur, clashing and ugly colors in almost all the backgrounds, and characters generally making the tackiest fashion choices possible. While the comparison to “Napoleon Dynamite” is largely unfair – “Eagle Vs. Shark” is far more self-aware than that pre-fab cult classic – the general look of the films are comparable.

The extreme quirkiness of “Eagle Vs. Shark” extends to Taika Waititi's visual approach as a director. The movie's brief run time is filled with a number of unexpected visuals tricks. Rotten apples that are discarded by Lily and Jarrod earlier in the film later return as stop-motion characters, going on a little adventure together. (Presumably because both characters are metaphorical rotten apples.) This follows a river being portrayed as a stop-motion collection of transparent plastic. Later in the film, sleeping bags jerk around the scenic New Zealand countryside through a similar stop-motion tactic. Watiti also throws in some slow motion during the intentionally anti-climatic fight scene or Lily having visions of sharks. It's fairly inventive, even if it is abreast with the movie's sometimes overbearingly quirky style.

When “Eagle Vs. Shark” was being produced, Loren Taylor and Taika Waititi were dating. The Lily character actually predates the film, the director being inspired by the odd character his girlfriend cooked up. So it's no surprise that Loren Taylor's acting is lived-in and relaxed. Despite the character's heavy amount of quirks, Taylor defines Lily as a person. She's not just a collection of gimmicks. She's shy and humble, unlike her boyfriend. She wears her emotion on her sleeve, showing her obvious infatuation with Jarrod upon meeting. The biggest difference between the two is Lily's ability to forgive, both others and herself, and Taylor handily captures the sweetness.

“Eagle Vs. Shark” is probably of most interest to Waititi fans for being another starring role for Jemaine Clement, future Conchord and regular presence in Waititi's films. Jarrod is the kind of oversized comedic character that Clement specializes in. Like many of Clement's creations, he acts tough and puffed-up to hide an easily wounded heart. It's not an easy role to play. The audience must recognize Jarrod is a huge asshole. We must like him in spite of his priggishness but the performer can never let that vulnerability become too obvious. Somehow, Clement balances all of these qualities, creating an equally sympathetic and obnoxious character.

Since “Eagle Vs. Shark” is a comedy, all its quirky excesses can be justified as long as its funny. Luckily, the film does bring the laughs fairly consistently. There's a lot of good ol' fashion absurdity here. Like the bizarre candles Jarrod creates, in hopes of selling to very specific demographics. Or the way he struggles with a condom before having sex with Lily for the first time. His long-standing grudge with the high school bully results in a number of extremely awkward phone calls. Their showdown goes in some delightfully unexpected directions. Probably my favorite gag involves Lily and Jarrod disagreeing on the merits of tents or sleeping bags. Or what becomes of an eagle-shaped cake she bakes for him.

Ultimately, “Eagle Vs. Shark's” piling on of self-aware quirkiness may not be for everyone. Even as someone who generally likes the film, it comes dangerously close to being too fucking much for me. (There's even an acoustic cover of a well known pop song near the end.) What saves the film is a genuine affection for its fucked-up character, an actual sense of heart beating beneath the cringe-inducing uncomfortableness. Separate by a few years from the age of indie quirk, you can also appreciate the movie's inventive production design and puckish creativity a little more now too. While it still feels a bit like Waititi was trying to chase some trends, it's a decent slice of oddball comedy in its own right. [Grade: B]

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