It’s nice to know there are other filmmakers from Kiwi country besides Peter Jackson, and even better to know that New Zealand quirk doesn’t end with him. Taika Waititi’s new film “Eagle vs. Shark” has eccentricity in spades, and a winning performance in lead actress Loren Horsley, yet doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts.
Horsley, who co-wrote the story with Waititi, stars as Lily, a meek and gangling cashier at a fast food restaurant whose entire day seems to revolve around the start of the lunch hour, when the aggressive and bulky Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) enters the burger joint for his mid-day meal. Most of the time, however, Jarrod will get into any other line save Lily’s, but when Jarrod wants to invite one of Lily’s coworkers to a party he’s throwing, he approaches her to give the invitation to the coworker. Clearly not interested in the video game store worker with the ugly haircut and lip mole, the coworker throws the invite away, which Lily fishes out of the trash, so she may attend. A combination costume party (come dressed as your favorite animal) and video game competition, Lily arrives dressed as a shark, where she ends up playing against the eagle-clad Jarrod in the championship on a Street Fighter-like game. In quick order, Lily and Jarrod have sex, Jarrod tells Lily he can no longer see her as he is in training to settle a long-standing score against the now-grown school bully from his youth, and Lily ends up going with Jarrod to the remote small town he grew up in.
It is here where the film starts to grow, as we are introduced to Jarrod’s extended family: His sister Nancy (Rachel House) and her husband, who continue to wear the branded active wear from their business that failed years ago, teenaged nephew who just wants to rock, despondent wheelchair-bound father who still misses his long-dead other son (who was everything Jarrod is not: somewhat handsome, very successful and extremely confident), and young daughter who creates a bond with Lily in ten minutes that she could never make with her father in ten years.
While the individual characters within Jarrod’s family and small town are wonderful within their peculiarities, it is also here where the film also takes its giant, almost fatalistic misstep. Once Jarrod confronts his one-time bully, only to discover life has changed for the other person far worse than whatever he dished out to Jarrod in their adolescence and is truly repentant for his youthful discretions, Jarrod shows his true colors. He’s not just a selfish idiot but a complete troglodyte. Our sympathies lie not with Jarrod but with Lily, who, while being far from a supermodel, is also far from being the doormat she seems to think she is, and has far more redeeming qualities than Jarrod has functional brain cells. That she not only stays with Jarrod after he breaks up with her again but practically becomes one of the family is a necessary function to keep the story moving along, yet it feels disingenuous. Lily and Jarrod both end this story basically the same as they were at the beginning, neither of them learning anything from their misadventures.
Mr. Clement, who can also be seen in the new HBO series “Flight of the Conchords,” plays the misanthropic Jarrod with the proper amount of arrogance and ignorance, but judging from the first episode of “Conchords,” that just might be his one thing, like a Kiwi version of Seann William Scott’s Stiffler from the “American Pie” films but without the charm. Ms. Horsley is heartbreaking as Lily, the long-suffering wallflower who deserves far better than her lot in life, and hopefully she will be the one who benefits most from the film’s exposure.
Waititi, who was nominated in 2005 for an Academy Award for his short film “Two Cars, One Night,” has a breezy, effortless directing style, one that would be better suited to stronger stories with more than one character we can become involved with. Which is not to say this is a bad film; Lily is such a great character that she alone elevates the film to something much more than it could have been. It’s just that Jarrod is both not enough of a match for Lily and too much like Lily for any contrast to take effect.
The one film “Eagle vs. Shark” keeps getting compared to is “Napoleon Dynamite.” It’s an unfair association. At least “Eagle vs. Shark” remains watchable, and even entertaining, for most of its running time.Rating: B-