27 June 2007


Okay, I'll admit: I didn't do my due diligence for this review and watch Napoleon Dynamite, a film that I have not seen and doubt very strongly that I would enjoy even a little bit. Particularly because nearly everyone is claiming that the sour New Zealand indie Eagle vs. Shark is very much like Napoleon Dynamite, and I surely do not have a very soft place in my heart for Eagle vs. Shark.

Here we go: Lily (Loren Horsley, the story co-writer) is a relentlessly shy fast-food worker with a huge crush on Jarrod (Jermaine Clement), who is a colossal dick. As much by accident as anything, they start dating, she goes with him on a trip to his hometown, and his colossal dickitude gets in the way of their happiness. For 94 minutes.

Obviously, the only reason that I am so dismissive of this film is because I am profoundly mirthless. Hell, I've never even seen Napoleon Dynamite! But I'll tell you what, there's funny "ha ha" and funny "fuck you," and while it probably just means that I'm a 90-year-old prude, I don't get what's supposed to be funny about humor that exists solely on the level of we the audience feeling so damn clever compared to the morons on camera.

Not that I have any particular hatred for the genre of "cringe humor" or whatever the hell they're calling it - I'm a big fan of both iterations of The Office, one of the cruelest comedies ever put forth in the English language. And such comedy luminaries as Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges managed to get big laughs at the expense of the "dumb" character.* Even Shakespeare knew that it was funny to have the audience look down on some poor rube without a hint of smarts or self-awareness.

But there's something much more diabolical about the humor in a film like Eagle vs. Shark. Jarrod isn't a funny jerk, après Oscar Wilde or Groucho Marx. He's an asshole who treats Lily throughout like she's a prop in his great life-plan. I'm honestly not sure if we're supposed to find his treatment of her funny; if we're supposed to find her puppydog-like acceptance of his cruelty funny; or if we're supposed to find the desperation of the situation funny. I just know that Eagle vs. Shark is a romantic comedy where one of the participants treats the other like crap, and that's not very funny. Funny is when Groucho treats some stuffed-up pill as a verbal-punching bag; but if Groucho directed his barbs, unabated for over an hour, at a sweet and sympathetic heroine, I don't suppose he'd be all that funny, after all.

That's the hell of it, you see. Horsely is so extremely good at embodying the simple desires and optimistic naïvete of her character that she makes the movie almost painful. I imagine that in the script, Lily was just a dumb cipher who got what was coming to her for being so clueless, but Horsely is good enough at fleshing out Lily's very real hopes and fears that she becomes a totally sympathetic character. It's hard - real hard - to mine laughter out of the suffering of a genuinely sympathetic character. Sometimes this sort of story works when the sympathetic main character has some significant blind spot that needs a dose of comeuppance, but Lily is kind of perfect the way she is, and it's not funny when Jarrod abuses her; he's just a colossal dick.

Maybe I wouldn't be so hellbent in this belief if not for Flight of the Conchords, a show currently airing on HBO featuring Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie as the sitcom version of their comedy/musical act. Clement plays a character very much like Jerrod in this series: an arrogant wannabe lothario who completely fails to notice that his constant failed romances are the by-product of his dickish attitude to women. The tricky bit is, we don't hate Jermaine (the character names are the actor names); we want him to get his head out of his ass and stop making stupid mistakes because he seems cool enough and we'd like him to be happy if he could engage in just a little bit of self-reflection.

Besides proving that Clement can be absolutely hilarious when he's got the right script to work with, Flight of the Conchords proves an almost perfect counter-example to my problems with Eagle vs. Shark: it is cruel to people who kind of suck, but it mines no humour out of our desire to see them humiliated; it is funny in that cringey Office way because the humor all comes out of a character we mostly like living down to our expectations. It's not any more humane, necessarily; but it's a hell of a lot more human.

Maybe I'm just a cranky old man. I just don't get what's supposed to be funny about this kind of hyper-ironic bone-dry humor. It's cruelty, pure and simple, and therefore the rom-com counterpart to torture porn in the realm of horror. Getting enjoyment out of other people's suffering isn't entertainment. I'm sorry to be such a killjoy about it.

The Official "But Fair is Fair" Moment: the soundtrack by Wellington band The Phoenix Foundation will surely not open anybody up to new realms of sonic possibility they had never considered. But as far as Shins-tinged power pop goes, the music is suitable enough to give you something to hum on the way out. Which beats the hell out of thinking about the movie once it's over.



Rebecca said...

I know someone who likes Napoleon Dynamite (which I have seen) who didn't really like Eagle vs. Shark (which I have not, so I can't make comparisons of my own, but the two films did come up in that conversation). My thoughts on ND, from my personal sense of humor (which is, in general, not that of The Office) is it has an ending that made me think it was funnier than it was. And then when I went to rewatch it, I just skipped to the end because I was bored with the rest. I've had that conversation recently too, so I'm not alone.

orange-lights said...

Damn, this is a late reply, but after watching Eagle vs. Shark, I was so confused and depressed (I haven't watched Napoleon Dynamite either) I had to see if there was anyone else who thought the same way that I did.

Thankfully, this review agrees with everything that I thought about the film. I watched Lily painfully in the film, after she got fired at work, her loving brother who was always there, her nice sympathetic character - there were parts of it where I empathised with her, wishing that her life would get better, so it actually made me depressed when I continued to watch her go for the total dick of a man throughout the whole film.

I hoped it would get better, that he would either stop being a dick or she would realise that she didn't need him in her life - god, there are even mentions in the film that she could do better than him.

I don't really know what the message was in the film, but I didn't find it to be a good one. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought this way about it.

Becca Bankston said...

I haven't seen the movie in a while, but you are right Jerrod is a colossal pathetic dick who is not aware that he is a dick and there is the humor, not his treatment of Lily. The romantic part of the movie is that Jerrod has been lucky enough to find someone like Lily who loves him, warts and all; which is really what all of us want... someone like Lily to love us. T

his is a guy, who if he did not meet someone like Lily would be lost for the rest of his life, and that indeed would be tragic, because he's not such a bad guy, he's just extremely clueless. He comes from a clueless family who ignored him in favor of his star athlete, dead older brother, and no one has really ever paid attention to him before, so he is starved for attention and he tries to get it any way he can.

He is not able to be nice to Lily because no one has ever really been nice or generous to him. He is a leftover kid who shouldn't have ever been born. But with Lily's unconditional love, you are able to see at the end that this asshole guy, who is actually a bratty kid who never grew up, will finally have a chance because he has lucked into finding unconditional love.

At the end of the movie, he is finally able to open up a little bit and accept that Lily is his girlfriend and he is finally starting to be a little bit reciprocal in that love. And the ending gives all the indication that his ability to love and become a real and decent human being will happen; and all because of Lily, who through her unconditional love for him, has been able to jump start that human revolution.

I think it is a great film and it is actually about Lily saving Jarrod because he would be nothing without her.

I see this film as more akin to Harold and Maude than Napoleon Dynamite. Napoleon Dynamite is a slice of life film about people who are basically nice and not lost. The only character in Napoleon Dynamite who would resemble anyone in this film is Cousin Rico who is much like Jarrod.

Harold in Harold and Maude is also a lost soul emotionally neglected by his family and he meets Maude whose attention and unconditional love for him transforms him.

This film is essentially like Harold and Maude in that a lost emotionally stunted through parental neglect person has found someone who loves them unconditionally and is then transformed by that love into a more mature and emotionally evolved individual.