Falling in love with Taika Waititi’s last two feature films, Boy & What We Do in the Shadows, has recently prompted me to revisit his debut, Eagle vs. Shark. It turns out that Waititi’s quirky indie romcom beginnings seemingly have improved with time. Either that or it’s become easier for me as an audience to connect with Waititi’s particular aesthetic in his first film, which felt much more generic when I first gave it a try a few years ago. Not to confuse you with too many animal species here, but Eagle vs. Shark is a total wolf in sheep’s clothing situation. What I remembered as being a straight-forward romance between two hopelessly awkward nerds is actually something much darker & more amusing in retrospect. It doesn’t sport the vibrant, unmitigated success of Waititi’s two follow-ups, but it’s a perfectly wonderful debut for a comedic director in its own nuanced way.
Released almost simultaneously with Flight of the Conchords (another Waititi creation), Eagle vs. Shark is most notable as being an early glimpse of the series’ breakout star Jemaine Clement. Clement appears here with the most horrific haircut in known existence and the poisonously boisterous personality of any Danny McBride character you could think of to match, yet still serves as an oddball sex symbol for the painfully awkward fast food worker Lily, played by Loren Taylor. There’s a twee cuteness in Lily’s attraction to Clement’s ultra-nerd caricature that could possibly be a turn-off to folks who shy away from the muted, manicured comedy of names like Wes Anderson, Jody Hill, and Jared & Jerusha Hess. What a lot of people miss when they dismiss these kinds of works is the dark soul lurking within. Clement’s self-centered man-child learns no easy lessons here. He ruthlessly breaks Lily’s heart, stranding her among strangers in a fruitless attempt to impress the world by mirroring the footsteps of his deceased, suicidal brother (played by Waititi himself in old photographs & home videos). Instead of chumly thinking to yourself “What does she see in this guy?”, you’re instead horrified by the depths of depravity she’ll allow him to go while still maintaining her affection. Eagle vs Shark may be dressed up like a sugary romance, but its core is thoroughly rotted & decayed.
It wouldn’t be surprising if a lot of folks brush this movie off as empty twee preciousness. Indeed, I remembered it being cute, but kinda vapid when I first watched it. I mean, the film features a stop motion music video about two apple cores falling in love to Devendra Banhart’s “The Body Breaks“. I’m getting twee overload readings on my B.S. scale just writing that down. Once you get past the handmade animal costumes, dinosaur-themed cinemas (Cinesaurus Rex, for the curious), and the very cheap Mortal Kombat knockoffs, (things I actually like, but feel very Etsy) the film is funny & sweet and great at making you feel like total shit. I think it might help to get used to Clement & Waititi’s world-class deadpan before approaching Eagle vs. Shark to fully appreciate its off-center sense of humor. Boy & What We Do in the Shadows are two unimpeachable comedies in my mind, but Waititi’s debut works well enough on its own terms as a dark, muted character study with a well-established visual eye & an unexpected mean streak. It’s a minor work compared to what he’s accomplished since, but I find it has gotten a lot better over time, despite what you might expect based on its mid-2000s twee tropes.