“Eagle vs. Shark” is a deadpan romantic comedy about two geeky losers whose out-of-itness is clearly meant to be funnier than it is. Writer-director Taika Waititi’s Oscar-nommed short, “Two Cars, One Night,” world preemed at Sundance in 2004, the same year “Napoleon Dynamite” bowed there, and his first feature is aimed at the same audience, which might be expected to find the uncouthness of these vid-game whiz characters hilarious. Some light laughs ensue and loner protags possess an offbeat appeal, but the 30ish characters, Kiwi accents and profoundly twee nature place a large question mark over its commercial prospects with the “Napoleon” demo, at least for Miramax in North America.
Title refers to the predator costumes worn by the two leads at an animal costume party thrown by hulking game store clerk Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) and crashed by gawky admirer Lily (Loren Horsley). Curtly dismissive when he’s not being downright hostile, Jarrod is nevertheless impressed by Lily’s video combat skills and puts the make on her with an abrupt, “Do you want to have sex?,” to which the homely gal meekly relies, “Yup.” Resulting physical encounter is equally speedy.
Despite subsequently being stood up by him, Lily still decides Jarrod is the guy for her; after all, they’ve got matching moles. But Jarrod backs off, announcing that he’s in training to take ultimate revenge on the bully who tortured him in high school a decade back.
The pair shortly decamps to Jarrod’s distant small hometown, where an ultimate dysfunctional family awaits. At its very best, the low-key, chuckle-inducing humor occasionally reminds of the regional Scottish flavor in the films of Bill Forsyth, but generally the proceedings feel closer to just tolerably amusing sketch comedy that’s given no added distinction by the utterly plain visual presentation.
The intended martial arts showdown between Jarrod and his old tormentor is unexpectedly un-p.c. and startlingly funny for a moment, but final stretch bogs down in an unnecessarily prolonged misunderstanding between the gawky lovebirds.
Developed at the Sundance Lab, this was a project among old friends, as Horsley, credited with the story, and Waititi are a couple, and Clement and Waititi formerly paired as a comedy team called “Humourbeast.” The mutual complicity in the collaboration is evident and Jarrod and Horsley, odd as they are as screen subjects, undeniably make an indelible impression, but result is still innocuously mild and inconsequential.
Production values are punched up by intermittent animated interludes of animal life and some distinctive tunes from the Wellington band the Phoenix Foundation.