Talking Points

Eagle vs. Shark fumbles, but Talk to Me has the gift of gab

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click to enlarge ON THE AIR: Don Cheadle stars as talk-radio host Petey Greene in Talk to Me. - Focus Features
Focus Features
ON THE AIR: Don Cheadle stars as talk-radio host Petey Greene in Talk to Me.

You can't go home again, as the pundits are forever reminding us. But what about those poor lost souls who never managed to leave in the first place?

Case in point: Lily and Jarrod, the aging über-geeks around whom Eagle vs. Shark revolves. Both are easily pushing 30 (the movie never bothers to pin down their ages), but everything about them reeks of junior high school, a stage of life these emotionally stunted nerds seem doomed to forever repeat. Imagine Napoleon Dynamite a decade older but none the wiser, and you begin to get the picture. No, actually that is the picture — the entire sum total of Eagle vs. Shark, such as it is.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, at least potentially. There are numerous ways for talented filmmakers to find humor or even genuine drama in characters like these — Napoleon Dynamite certainly proved that the delusions of doofuses could be both hilarious and oddly engaging, and Judd Apatow has repeatedly turned arrested adolescence into a very successful hat trick in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up.

Eagle vs. Shark, however, has two main problems that separate it from the rest of the herd and cause it to fall flat on its face. First of all, writer-director Taika Waititi can never seem to decide whether he wants to mock his characters or make them endearing, and you can feel the filmmaker self-consciously struggling with how to play things throughout most of the film. The second problem is that the movie, which is ostensibly a comedy, simply isn't very funny.

It all begins with Lily (Loren Horsley), a plain jane flipping burgers at a New Zealand fast-food joint and too dense to quite comprehend the rut she's in. A Kiwi zombie with bad hair and an awful fashion sense, Lily lives life as if fog-bound, barely registering the slings and arrows flung in her direction, while communicating in a mostly monosyllabic monotone.

Lily's not without her emotional needs, though, and the person she has eyes for is an even bigger loser than herself — a lumbering, self-involved dweeb with a hideous mullet and a mole that matches the one above Lily's mouth — something the girl apparently takes for romantic destiny. The dweeb's name is Jarrod (Jemaine Clement, Flight of the Conchords), and when the two discover a mutual love of video games (she lets him win), a relationship starts up that eventually leads to Lily accompanying her annoying new boyfriend on a ridiculous search-and-destroy mission to pay back his old high school nemesis.

Eagle vs. Shark throws in some curiously nasty business every now and then — most notably some ugly tension between Jarrod and his family, fueled by a dead brother he'll never be as good as — but the bulk of the movie is too cartoonish to take seriously, with virtually every character exploited as a figure of ridicule. The problematic tonal shifts recall Little Miss Sunshine (itself no great shakes, although a far cry better than this), but the movie that Eagle vs. Shark simply won't let us forget is Napoleon Dynamite — from the deliberately static set-ups and camerawork, to the general sense of mundane absurdity, to the characters' all-pervasive awkwardness and inability to express themselves.

Jarrod even seems to favor Napoleon's trademark facial ticks — squinting, mouth perpetually open, refusing to make eye contact — to the point where the resemblance becomes a little unnerving. Eagle vs. Shark works overtime dishing up its forced brand of whimsy — bouncy pop ballads play and incessantly cute claymation sequences provide segues between scenes — but the overall sense imparted by the movie is of watching a retread and not always a particularly pleasant one at that.

A much better bet opening at local theaters this week is Talk To Me, a movie about a real-life figure every bit as eloquent as the characters in Eagle vs. Shark are hopelessly inarticulate. Don Cheadle, an actor who is rarely less than remarkable, turns in another fine performance as Petey Greene, a silver-tongued devil and perennial bad boy who used his position as a Washington, D.C., talk-radio host to shake up the political and cultural landscape of America in the '60s and '70s.

Greene wielded words like weapons, seductive candy or whatever it took to make his point. He possessed a gift of gab that took this hard-living miscreant (a word Petey loved) from sorting mail in prison to a gig as the morning DJ on a failing radio station, where the street-smart motormouth became an overnight sensation, outraging and tantalizing listeners with his provocative mix of no-spin politics, raunch and charisma. Managing to piss off Motown's powerful mogul Berry Gordy and the FCC all within his first week, Petey was certainly a pioneer shock jock. But he was also an astute political commentator and, ultimately, much more.

Talk To Me's pivotal moment comes roughly midway through, with an extended sequence detailing Greene's masterful public response to the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. The movie shows us Greene's on-air marathon in all its glory, as Petey passionately expresses his heartbreak and anger over the assassination (and the racist systems implicitly condoning it) while pleading for an end to the deadly riots raging in the wake of Dr. King's death.

Some would argue that Petey Greene's words saved more than one American city from burning to the ground at that time, and Talk To Me clearly depicts that defining moment in history — when talk radio moved from simple entertainment to the center of public discourse and morphed, for some, into a sort of massive group therapy session.

Director Kasi Lemmons, who tugged a bit too aggressively at heartstrings in 1997's Eve's Bayou, does a commendable job here, although she gets a little lazy in Talk To Me's second half, skipping too quickly through key events in Greene's life and relying on music-driven montages to communicate his eventual downward spiral. On the cusp of massive fame, Petey is depicted choosing to self-destruct and then seems to all but disappear from his own story during the final act.

This allows Talk To Me to begin focusing more on Greene's manager, Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor, also excellent), but even here the film offers unexpected pleasures in illuminating the almost symbiotic relationship between the two men. Factor in the best soundtrack of the year (how much Otis Redding and James Brown can your heart stand?) and some spot-on conjuring of super-fab '60s/'70s vibes, and that makes Talk To Me the movie to see this week.

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