The quirky, microbudgeted romantic comedy is making a comeback, at least from overseas. "Once," from Ireland, turned out to be a crowd favorite and now, from New Zealand, we have "Eagle vs. Shark."
The first feature of actor and stand-up comic Taika Waititi – he previously made an Oscar-nominated short – "Eagle vs. Shark" was developed at the Sundance Institute, a nonprofit organization founded by Robert Redford that helps aspiring artists develop their craft. For better and worse, it has many of the Sundance hallmarks. It's scruffy and winsome and bit too eager to please – like a cute puppy that won't let you alone.
Lily (Loren Horsley) is a waitress who secretly harbors a yen for one of her customers, Jarrod (Jemaine Clement), a video-game clerk who barely acknowledges her. Jarrod is 10 years out of high school and has been plotting his revenge against the school bully ever since. Although he has bulked up with martial arts since then, Jarrod's inner geek is still very much on view.
He organizes a "dress as your favorite animal" party and shows up as an eagle. Lily comes as a rather pathetic looking shark. Obviously these two were meant for each other – they even share an identical-looking birthmark – although Lily almost blows it at the party by proving to be the better video-game player.
Their fling, such as it is, is a comedy of cluelessness. Lily is such a die-hard romantic that she can't see Jarrod's faults; he is so obsessed with his pending payback to the bully that she barely registers with him. When Jarrod hears that the bully has returned to their hometown, he makes plans to return and force a showdown.
Not surprisingly, Lily tags along. Horsley, who in real life is Waititi's girlfriend, is an amiable performer who also knows how to convey doggedness. Jarrod's mission may be harebrained, but at least it's more exciting than waiting tables.
The awkwardness of geek love is not the most promising of movie subjects. "Eagle vs. Shark" manages to hold your interest because the New Zealand setting adds a fresh perspective to an old formula. In Hollywood, it's more common to see a geek and beauty fall in love, as in, most recently, "Knocked Up." The movie that "Eagle vs. Shark" most reminded me of is "Napoleon Dynamite," which practically defined the geek genre.
Like that film, "Eagle vs. Shark" is nothing much to look at visually. Instead, Waititi puts all his energies into the Lily-Jarrod combo. He is betting that their goofy affectionateness will carry the day. It doesn't quite work. For one thing, Jarrod is such a bundle of anger that, when his final showdown with the bully occurs, the results are more ugly than comic. It's difficult to know what Waititi was going for in this scene. It's not that I'm against injecting darkness into a light comedy; it's just that the darkness here is not really dealt with. It's plunked into the movie.
What rescues "Eagle vs. Shark" is its focus on Lily. Although Horsley overdoes the winsomeness, she is genuinely appealing. Love erases Lily's geekiness and in its place stands an attractive young woman.
Like "Once," "Eagle vs. Shark" is in danger of being overrated because it's an offbeat movie about "little people" finding love. In truth, it's also a commercially contrived comedy with one eye on the box office (just as "Napoleon Dynamite" was). It's best approached with lowered expectations. Grade: B
• Rated R for language, some sexuality, and brief, animated violence.