Nerd meets nerd in the New Zealand comedy “Eagle vs. Shark,” and wacky, deadpan, dark and dysfunctional adventures occur, complete with animal costumes, homemade candles, animated apples and anti-bully revenge. Writer-director Taika Waititi serves up a colorful geekville with this romantic comedy and noteworthy feature debut. You just wish that, amid the quirkiness, he’d included an embraceable relationship and some genuine heart.
Waititi’s valentine to oddballs focuses on two misfits — sweet, awkward burger flipper Lily (Loren Horsley) and cluelessly uncool video game clerk Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) — who click at Jarrod’s dress-as-your-favorite-animal party, which Lily crashes. She’s a shark, he’s an eagle, and, before long he’s showing her the candles he makes (one is shaped like a pointing hand). “Do you want to have sex?” he asks. “Yup,” she says.
Soon, Lily accompanies Jarrod to his hometown, where Jarrod plans to fight the high-school bully who tormented him a decade ago. He goes into martial-arts training and callously dumps Lily. Refusing to lose him, she hangs around and bonds with his off-kilter, trauma-plagued family.
Once you get past its superficial resemblance to the similarly deadpan-geeky “Napoleon Dynamite,” the film comes across as fresh and mildly amusing, with Waititi displaying an original brand of middlebrow drollness. He’ll “reap what he sowed — and I’m not talking corn or wheat,” Jarrod says, among other unexceptional but distinctive phraseology. Visually, the sight of Lily and Jarrod kissing in their tacky animal costumes is goofy-perfect. Whimsical animation sequences featuring apple cores add to the movie’s personality.
But if you buy into the Lily-Jarrod relationship, that’s because you expect it to ripen or deepen in its off-the-wall course. Instead, Waititi, who is a comedian in New Zealand, presents it with all the depth of an extended skit. He’s created 87 minutes of story, but nothing to keep you from emotionally abandoning these characters.
Most problematic is Jarrod, who, described by Waititi as “all the very worst traits of every male you’ve ever known,” exhibits no quality that enables you to deem him worthy of Lily. Eventually, you buck the grain of the story and can’t root for the pair’s reunion.
The performances, meanwhile, are superb. Both Horsley, who created the Lily character, and Clement turn potential one-dimensional dorks into unpredictable protagonists.
Eagle vs. Shark **½
Starring Loren Horsley, Jemaine Clement, Brian Sergent, Joel Tobeck
Written and directed by Taika Waititi
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes