Thursday, July 26, 2007

LOSERS IN LOVE

Eagle vs. Shark rescues the nerd movie from its own meanness

Posted on Thu, Jul 26, 2007 at 4:00 AM

****1/2
Eagle vs. Shark
Studio: Miramax
Rated: R
Cast: Jemaine Clement, Loren Horsley
Director: Taika Waititi
WorkNameSort: Eagle vs. Shark
Our Rating: 4.50

As often as it ridicules fat people and forsakes Asian men, Hollywood reserves its cruelest bullying for nerds. Derided, typecast and forced to provide comic relief for heroic protagonists, nerds in film might get the girl in the end, but it's after repeated beatings and humiliations. Civil rights movements and general societal progress have resulted in blacks, American Indians and homosexuals being treated (usually) like actual human beings by Hollywood. But groups without organized representation ' such as nerds ' continue to have sand kicked in their faces by unimaginative comedy writers looking for an easy, defenseless target.

It was during the unheralded filmmaking era of the 1980s that nerds started receiving a lot of screen time. Though some may recall it as a triumphant moment for those who wore pocket protectors and bifocals, the success of 1984's Revenge of the Nerds has caused more geek ass to get kicked in Hollywood than any other film. This was a teen comedy that equally offended all minorities. While it didn't inspire films about frat boys or gay javelin throwers, nerds began popping up in all '80s teen films. No John Hughes film was complete without a nerd with a 'kick meâ?� sign on his back, and teen films today can scarcely be made without a geek or two to torment.

The Laurence Olivier of nerds was Anthony Michael Hall, who starred as lead geek in Weird Science, The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. Brainy and sporting braces, Hall personified the '80s teen dork, a comic foil that gave some nerds hope that they might have a shot with Molly Ringwald.

But if the '80s were the dark ages for nerds in film, recent years have shown only slight improvement. While the titular character in Napoleon Dynamite became a sort of geek hero, most of that film's humor was derived from a group of freaks who resembled the cast of Revenge of the Nerds. One of the few substantive takes on high school geekdom was the TV show Freaks and Geeks, where the geeks ' the stars of the show ' seemed like real kids, not the usual four-eyed stereotypes. However, the nerds' reign was brief, as the show was cancelled by NBC after one season. Almost all of the humor in the recent Eddie Murphy vehicle Norbit was at the expense of fat women, nerds and old Chinese men, though Murphy was more convincing as an old Chinese man than a nerd. It's cuckoo, but in big Hollywood films, actors with chiseled cheekbones are sometimes hired to play nerds, rather than hiring real nerds for the job, as was once the fate of American Indians in Westerns.

Finally, some salvation has arrived for dorks who would like to see themselves more accurately and complexly portrayed in film. It comes by way of New Zealand in the form of a charming, but very unconventional nerd love story called Eagle vs. Shark. The rarest sort of film, it focuses on geeky outcasts, but does not make them the butt of its jokes.

Lily (Loren Horsley) is a sweet, easygoing and not unattractive former Meaty Boy Burger employee who falls for a customer, Jarrod (Jemaine Clement of HBO's Flight of the Conchords), a mullet-sporting fellow who looks like a cross between a simian extra from The Planet of the Apes and the Incredible Hulk. Jarrod is obsessed with plotting revenge against a former bully and brings Lily to his hometown, where she clicks more with his odd, dysfunctional family than she does with him. Jarrod is an aggro super-dork who, as part of his training to beat up his bully, jumps through hula hoops while wearing a ridiculous sweat suit and orange bandana.

Though there are occasional laughs at Jarrod's expense, he is in no way one-dimensional. Rather than portray Jarrod with some affection, director Taika Waititi has created a revenge-absorbed, not very nice geeky character that would be completely out of place in your average nerds-triumph-over-the-jocks teen comedy.

Lily is also an outcast ' she's laid off from her job because she's apparently the least popular employee ' but she's more of a geek's girlfriend than a genuine geek herself. Her blind, softhearted devotion to Jarrod seems genuine. Lily is the sort of girl many male nerds of the world find themselves settling down with. A Molly Ringwald or prom-queen type is less likely to put up with late-night Dungeons & Dragons sessions or kissing someone with a retainer in his mouth.

In the real world, nerds have sex, fall in love, get married and have kids, though they may do some of these things more awkwardly than others. A revelation in the history of nerds on film, Eagle vs. Shark is a sincere work that treats nerds as human beings, rather than punching bags. 'I'm a loser, aren't I?â?� Jarrod asks Lily at one point in the film. Her note-perfect nerd-girl response? 'Doesn't matter.â?�

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