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.