Saturday, June 23, 2007

Eagle vs. Shark: Crazy, in love

In Taika Waititi's brilliantly, hysterically funny Eagle vs. Shark, Lily (Loren Horsley) and Jarrod (Flight of the Conchord's Jemaine Clement) meet cute: She crashes his animal costume party, her older brother in tow. Oh, and she's dressed as a shark; the host, her longtime crush, is dressed as an eagle. When her shark (who uses a great nom de game) beats almost all comers at Fight Man, Jarrod falls in like. Well, sort of.

This is a cockeyed romantic comedy about two oddballs who would seem like total losers if the rest of the New Zealand that Waititi shows us wasn't so weird all around them. Like characters in a song by They Might Be Giants come to life, Eagle vs. Shark and its characters have nuance and rhythm, and a completely nutty logic. All of the homes we enter have images of animals on their walls: Jarrod has a cougar head above his bed, and at his father's house, there's a German Shepherd on the wall like a family portrait (let's not even mention the card-playing dog tapestry). The animals aren't just there for entertainment purposes: Everyone in this film envies their power.

The characters all want to be more than they are; they want to step forward, but they can't. Jarrod takes an ill-advised step but can't back up; he's too committed to the wrong story. Lily can't speak up for herself for the longest time, until Jarrod challenges her with his illogical behavior. Then she is not only able to act, but also gives Jarrod the empathy he doesn't get from his loopy family.

"I'm a loser," he says to her.
"Doesn't matter," she replies.

Eagle vs. Shark makes that one of the most satisfying romantic exchanges all year.

Both Clement and, especially Horsley -- who displays a range of emotions while distractedly chewing her lower lip -- shine in their roles. The supporting cast is fine, too, from Cohen Holloway's porn-obsessed hacker, whose computer appears to be an old 286, to Rachel House's seen-it-all, tracksuit-dealing older sister. The music, largely by The Phoenix Foundation, moves things along nicely.

And, even if the quirky couple's bizarre charms begin to wear on you, Waititi has kept his film admirably compact: it's just under 90 minutes long.

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