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Call this the season of the benchwarmers

New Zealand has its share of off-putting outsiders, as a movie and new HBO series make amusingly evident.

June 10, 2007|Jeff Goldsmith | Special to The Times

PEEK into any multiplex over the summer and you'll find that there's a lovable band of outsiders cashing in at the box office, from the quirky but likable gallery of misfits in "Knocked Up" and "Superbad" to the quiet-but-kind Peter Parker and the sympathetic ogre Shrek. But surely, not every geek is a misunderstood nice guy?

Not in New Zealand, anyway.

That country's two forays into geekdom -- the movie "Eagle vs. Shark," which opens Friday, and HBO's new series "Flight of the Conchords," which premieres next Sunday -- both star Kiwi actor Jemaine Clement as an off-putting outsider.

In "Eagle," protagonist Jarrod (Clement) struts onto the screen with enough negative energy to be mistaken for Napoleon Dynamite's evil twin brother. This selfish man-child appalls everyone around him except for Lily, the one lonely girl who knows there has to be a good guy hidden beneath all that anger -- or so she hopes.

The creative team behind Miramax's "Eagle" formed in 1995 when writer-director Taika Waititi met Clement at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and they began performing sketch comedy together. Around this time, Waititi also met actress Loren Horsley, who became his longtime girlfriend and collaborator. The trio hung out, were flatmates and eventually made "Eagle" after Horsley initiated the $1.8 million project (in New Zealand dollars, about $1.35 million in U.S. currency) by pitching Waititi her loner-character concept.

"Lily is a bit like myself as a teenager," Horsley says, speaking by phone from New York, where she joined Waititi and Clement as they filmed "Conchords." "I was raised by Buddhists in a very Brethren (religious Christian) community, so I was automatically an outsider just because my parents were different."

Inspired by Giulietta Masina's character in Fellini's "La Strada" and Emily Watson's character in "Breaking the Waves," Horsley collaborated with Waititi to create a lost girl vulnerable and naive enough to believe she can bring out the good side of a troubled man. Horsley has a story-by credit in the film.

Thus, part of Waititi's initial challenge lay in creating Lily's love interest and, as Waititi explained, the character of Jarrod came to represent a colorful mixture of all the worst traits of himself, Clement and other men he knows. Jarrod ultimately thrives on screen as a perversely refreshing, politically incorrect nerd with a chip on his shoulder who, through Clement's colorful performance, manages to stop right on the edge of being mistaken for a troubled soul in a Todd Solondz flick.

And while the movie is certainly an offbeat comedy, a tone of quiet desperation permeates the story, in the vein of "Muriel's Wedding."

Horsley pitched Waititi in winter 2005 just as his short film, "Two Cars, One Night," was nominated for an Oscar and Waititi was invited to the Sundance Institute's Filmmaker's Lab. Waititi took a week to write his first draft of "Eagle" and then continued revising it at the Lab and thereafter.

"Eagle's" plot concerns the grudge-holding, nunchuk-wielding, videogame champ Jarrod, who's finally met his match in the form of the timid local burger hostess, Lily. Even after Lily throws herself into his bed, Jarrod is simply too self-absorbed to care. This 30-something videogame-store clerk remains mentally trapped in his tweens by the belief that until he beats up the bully who tormented him years ago, he won't be able to earn his father's love and move on with his life.

"I'm pretty awkward at times," says Clement, who remembers being accused of stealing simply because he was the new kid at a school. Using those experiences, Clement explained that he sees Jarrod as an overgrown kid who was picked on so badly that now, in a comedic delayed response many years later, he's finally lashing out -- albeit obsessively. "He's a nice guy who has just learned as a defense mechanism to push people away," says Clement.

Some will question why Lily would keep trying to win the heart of such a seemingly unredeemable guy, but Horsley insists there's good in everyone and that Lily, through her own painful experiences as an outsider, can see around Jarrod's rough edges.

"Lots of women I know tend to pick up lame ducks because they have a nurturing quality, and while that's kind of horrendous, there is a truth to it," Horsley says.

When Clement rallied to have Jarrod do something positive for Lily, Waititi refused, insisting that Jarrod's glimmer of redemption should appear only at the end of his journey. "At the end of the film, I really feel that he's on the path to becoming a better person," Waititi says.

"Eagle," which isn't slated to open in New Zealand until August, also plays up the backwardness of small-town life Down Under.

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