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'Eagle vs. Shark' is a who-cares? matchup

June 15, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

Comparisons between the new New Zealand nerd opera "Eagle vs. Shark" and "Napoleon Dynamite" are probably inevitable, given both films' appreciation for social ineptitude at its most hopeless and intractable.

A meet-awkward love story between geeky service-sector serfs with sad pasts, writer-director Taika Waititi's first feature was developed at the Sundance Director's and Screenwriter's Lab a year after "Napoleon Dynamite" premiered at the festival and shares many of its aesthetic and ethical concerns. Namely, "Eagle vs. Shark" wants to examine the deepest recesses of its characters' alienation and poke at its findings with a long stick and do so while luxuriating in the kind of nerd kitsch that Australian movies from "Strictly Ballroom" to "Muriel's Wedding" made mainstream long before Pedro ever ran for president.

The film's title was inspired by the costumes worn to a party by Lily (Waititi's girlfriend, Loren Horsley, who created the character), a fast-food drone unanimously shunned by her fellow Meaty Love employees for being a loser, and Jarrod (Jemaine Clement), the passive-aggressive, baselessly arrogant electronics-store clerk she adores from afar. Jarrod hadn't intended to ask Lily to his "animal party" -- the flier he handed her was intended for her more attractive, totally uninterested colleague.

Lily shows up dressed as a shark and after graciously letting Jarrod, who is dressed as his favorite animal, an eagle, win a videogame tournament, cheerfully agrees to go to bed with him. A perfunctory come-on leads to even more perfunctory sex -- the shark costume never even comes off -- and soon Jarrod is asking her out, standing her up, and showing up at her house later, claiming a complicated emotional life.

Horsley and Clement are completely convincing as the dorkiest people for miles -- she talks as though she's trying to swallow her mouth and gazes at everyone with sideways puppy eyes, he's a consummate mouth-breather. But in the nerd-world ethos, wherever there is social awkwardness and terrible taste in clothes, family trauma and emotional repression lurk nearby. Lily accompanies Jarrod to his home town, where he plans to challenge the bully who tormented him in high school to a fight. Once there, he leaves her stranded with his oddball family.

As with most movies of this genre -- and I think it's safe to call it one now -- "Eagle vs. Shark" fares better at the beginning, when such lunatic details as an inside-out Meaty Love burger (the bun's on the inside) and a candle in the shape of a pointing fist feel fresh, than at the end, when it's hard not to feel like one's emotional investment has surpassed anything the characters are capable of and has therefore not really paid off.

The film's absurdist dialogue is consistently funny -- "He's going to reap what he's sown," Jarrod says of his erstwhile tormentor, "and it's not corn -- or wheat." But as it turns out, spending a couple of hours with emotionally arrested, socially moronic characters is not a whole lot more fun than spending a couple of hours with actual emotionally arrested, socially moronic people. In other words, shunning exists for a reason, and it's not like "Eagle vs. Shark" doesn't know it.

There's an undercurrent of savagery to the love story of Lily and Jarrod. When Lily tries to nudge Jarrod's father into developing an interest in his son, she fills him in on his favorite animals. Of course, Lily is the type to have a favorite animal too. Lily is the type to have a conversation about her favorite animal.

The rest of us can marvel at her sincerity and purity of heart, but after a while you start feeling like they deserve each other and you deserve better.

carina.chocano@latimes.com

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MPAA rating: R for language, some sexuality, and brief animated violence. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. At the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd. (at Westwood Blvd.), West L.A. (310) 281-8233; and Pacific's ArcLight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd. (at Ivar Avenue), Hollywood, (323) 464-4226.

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