In spite of its divisiveness with critics and audiences alike, Napoleon Dynamite managed a long, low-key, highly profitable theatrical run, possibly because there were at least three ways to enjoy it: by laughing at its spastic-dork characters, by empathizing with them in a Revenge Of The Nerds kind of way, or simply by reveling in a comedy that actually felt original, unlike anything else on the screen in recent memory. Unfortunately, that only leaves two ways to enjoy New Zealand's Eagle Vs. Shark, which follows so closely in Napoleon Dynamite's wake that it steps on its heels. It has the exact same dorks to sympathize with or sneer at, but for all its quirk, nothing about it feels original.
Loren Horsley stars as Lily, a fast-food worker who's so pathetically awkward and wallflowerish that even her loser co-workers hold her in contempt. After developing a depressing crush on mega-geeky, squinty, mulleted customer Jemaine Clement (currently a hot name in comedy as half of HBO's Flight Of The Conchords duo), she wedges herself into his life by giving him free food, crashing his uncomfortable costume party, and—shudder—taking him to bed for approximately 15 seconds of robotic non-passion. Their subsequent semi-relationship leaves her at ground zero as he returns to his horribly dysfunctional family on a protracted fool's errand. All of this is accomplished amid lengthy discomfiting pauses and ultra-flat dialogue ("This is Lily. She gave you free fries." "Oh yeah. I got free fries."), which emerges in nasally unpleasant ways from characters who are all the more embarrassingly socially inept because they're so clueless about their embarrassing social ineptitude.
Exactly as in Napoleon Dynamite, this is all played for maximum squirm value, and it's certainly effective; the remotest bit of empathy is enough to make the entire film agonizing. The mesmerizingly exact, utterly convincing performances certainly help. But what was fresh a few years ago has naturally gone stale, and the film's excessive Napoleon Dynamite aping is almost as awkward as its maladjusted characters. First-time writer-director Taika Cohen seems heavily influenced by other movies as well; his dreamy stop-motion interludes are reminiscent of The Science Of Sleep, his precocious-girl character recalls Little Miss Sunshine, and his overall romantic line is reminiscent of Garden State. Presented in a cinematic vacuum, Eagle Vs. Shark might feel like a colorful little train-wreck drama, but given the recent popularity of such films, it comes across more like a nerdcore clip show, a sort of straight-faced Epic Movie for fans of discomfort comedy.