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July 4-10, 2007

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Animal Crackers

'Eagle vs. Shark': Beyond the valley of the nerds

By Richard von Busack

TODAY'S WORD for the wise comes from David Thomas, lead singer of Pere Ubu, quoted in Jon Savage's history of punk rock, England's Dreaming. Thomas gave up caring whether anyone thought he was cool or not decades ago, and he describes the splitting up of the ways that happens in high school. "You have the geeks bending off. You've got pens in your pocket, and you play chess at lunchtime and you make films—or you go off to the mainstream. The geeks know they're geeks and that everyone despises them, and they plow ahead nonetheless. New Wave music presented the face of hardcore geekdom, but without any substance; it was a template. Once you have a template to mold yourself to, you're out of isolation ... it doesn't matter what you're copying, you're still copying."

New Zealand director Taika Waititi's Eagle vs. Shark presents template geekdom. Lily (Loren Horsley), a fast-food cashier fired by popular demand, has a crush on the mullet-headed, gap-toothed Jarrod (Jermaine Clement), the manager of Screen Blasterz across the way. Though he hardly knows she exists, Lily crashes his costume party/one-room video-game championship. (All come dressed as their favorite animals; the shark-fancying Lily goes in a terrycloth great white outfit. Jarrod shows up in his role as his avatar, "Eagle Lord." There's your title.) The two fall in bed together. This slumber party and a late-period drunk scene earn Eagle vs. Shark an unfair R rating from those sages at the MPAA, who now keep this little movie hidden from its proper audience of bright 16-year-olds.

In the words of Pee-wee Herman, there are things about Jarrod that Lily couldn't know—there are things about him she shouldn't know. In his hometown, he has a destiny to fulfill: the Samoan bully who pounded him when he was a high school student is coming back after a long absence. Also, he has members of his family to deal with. His father, for instance, never considered Jarrod a real man and took to his wheelchair when Jarrod's beloved older brother died. And Jarrod also has an illegitimate daughter who hardly knows him at all. Waititi does his part to charm with stop-motion-animated sequences and bad-taste décor. We see wallpaper that has its artistic phasers set on "stun." Here is much pensive study of swap-meet tapestries, especially the famed poker-playing dogs. Waititi stages scenes with Lily in empty public playgrounds. She has exactly the view the adolescent has of them: you're too old to play in them, and yet where else is a kid like you supposed to go?

The pop-eyed Lily—a Pre-Raphaelite nerd—saunters through, keeping deadpan at the ever-stranger revelations of Jarrod's geekery. She watches him levelly and adoringly, with her head tilted to a 15-degree angle. In his creation of the Crazy Burger—two patties of meat with a bun between them—Waititi has made a better hamburger joke than any in the Clerks franchise. The laughs Eagle vs. Shark elicits are very loud but very infrequent. Dead air fills the movie—loads of it—as well as the sense of watching the last of a series of blurry Xeroxes, from Jim Jarmusch to Napoleon Dynamite. These characters are stamped so firmly as geeks that they hardly have minds of their own.

Movie Times Eagle vs. Shark (R; 92 min.), directed and written by Taika Waititi, photographed by Adam Clark and starring Jermaine Clement and Loren Horsley, plays at selected theaters.

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