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Film Review: Eagle vs Shark

Eagle vs Shark (2007; Directed by Taika Waititi)

A sort of more adult, even more deadpan New Zealandish Napoleon Dynamite, Eagle vs Shark is a rare, odd bird of a romantic comedy. The central couple of shy girl Lily (Loren Horsley) and awkward but obnoxiously overconfident nerd Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) either never really fall in love or stumble their way closer to it than they realize by the film’s conclusion. In truth, the affect of the whole film is so flattened (purposely and amusingly) that it’s quite hard to tell how they end up feeling about each other.

Both Lily and Jarrod are poorly-socialized loners in an unnamed New Zealand city (Wellington, probably, which is where it was partly shot). Lily moons over the mulleted video-game shopworker Jarrod from her post at a fast food counter. She learns of an animal dress-up party that he is hosting and invites herself, dressing as a shark; Jarrod is done up as an eagle, and lo and behold, that non-sequiturial title is explained. The party is a pretty hilariously sad affair, mostly attended by regulars of the gaming store and organized around a video fighting game competition that is intended to be an ego-stroking victory lap for Jarrod. Lily, whose gaming handle is “Dangerous Person” (an even funnier joke in one of those glorious Kiwi accents whose cadences are so well-adapted to deadpan humour), defeats all comers but stares distracted at Jarrod in the final showdown, allowing him to win handily. They kiss, have halting, brief sex in their costumes, and apparently become an item.

It soon becomes clear, however, that Jarrod is kind of an unreliable and self-involved idiot, though this only slightly dents Lily’s enthusiasm for him. He stands her up for a date and then excuses his actions by telling her that he needs to return to his hometown to kill a bully who tormented him in his youth. Perhaps not expecting Lily to believe that his revenge mission is real, he nonetheless accepts her offer of a ride to the town with her and her brother Damon (Joel Tobeck), who does bad impressions of over-quoted famous lines from movies the whole way there.

Lily becomes acquainted with Jarrod’s family in the town as he “trains” for his battle to the death and taunts his absent target. She pushes his withdrawn, wheelchair-bound father (Brian Sergent) around town, feigns interest in the unsuccessful line of self-designed athletic apparel constantly worn by his sister and her husband (Rachel House and Craig Hall), and plays with his barely-acknowledged daughter. She comes to like them almost more than she likes him, obsessed as he is with his sure-to-be-unfulfilling quest for revenge, which impresses her little. Even as he tries awkwardly to push her away, she clings on, preferring the newfound sense of familial closeness to her solitary life in the city. Lily also learns of a past family tragedy whose lasting trauma serves to explain many of the eccentricities and pathologies of this particular clan.

Waititi symbolically underscores the strange, uncertain fits and starts of Lily and Jarrod’s relationship with cute snatches of stop-motion animation featuring two anthropomorphic apples, set to the music of New Zealand indie-pop band the Phoenix Foundation. The message seems to be that lonely souls can find companionship even through adversity and misunderstandings and that sometimes what we call love is nothing more than a simple and non-passionate arrangement of mutual benefit. There’s a bittersweet note to this indie farce that gives it some measure of emotional integrity.

Considering its not-exactly-sterling lasting reputation, the Napoleon Dynamite comparison may not do this movie many favours. Certainly the kitschy lower-class production design of Eagle vs. Shark suggests that of the rural Idaho of Jared and Jerusha Hess’ quirky comedy hit. Big Sky country and Middle Earth down under turn out to have more in common that you might have guessed, though the latter’s famously spectacular scenery trumps the wide horizons of Idaho pretty handily even in a modestly-shot film like this. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments here for those whose sense of humour is tuned to the right frequency, and plenty of potential irritations for those who aren’t. Perhaps Eagle vs Shark‘s greatest service is to prevent anyone who watches it from making a bad movie-dialogue impression ever again. If this eccentric and often delightful New Zealand comedy accomplished nothing more than that, it could still be considered at least a modest success. As it is, it clears that bar by more than a little.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. October 23, 2015 at 5:23 pm

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