Liger still pretty much our favorite animal

In a world of first-come, first-served, the sheagles of New Zealand’s ‘Eagle vs. Shark’ will have to wait in line without promise behind ‘Napoleon Dynamite’s’ ligers

Haily Gostas

Meet Lily, lovingly portrayed by Loren Horsley in the New Zealand Sundance smash, “Eagle vs. Shark.” She is a hyper-shy, waifish fast food cashier with a crooked grin and a big ol’ beating heart. She lives with best friend and brother Damon (Aaron Cortesi), bakes cakes, dabbles in classical guitar and is a fairly decent hula-hooper. Her favorite animal is a shark.

“Eagle Vs. Shark”

Directed by: Taika Cohen
Starring: Loren Horsley, Jemaine Clement, Aaron Cortesi
Rated: R
Showing at: Lagoon Cinema, 1320 Lagoon Ave., (612) 825-6006

For some reason, she is frenziedly smitten with the bespectacled, mulleted Jarrod (Jemaine Clement, of HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords”), a daft electronics store clerk and restaurant regular. He hosts an annual battle-to-the-death video game party (for entrance, attendees must don the costume of their most beloved beast – his is, you guessed it, an eagle) that doubles as Lily’s first potentially life-changing chance at snagging her prey.

After some hilariously brief sex (while struggling in their pageant-worthy animal outfits, no less) and a few other awkward encounters, her second chance lies in accompanying the revenge-hungry Jarrod to his quiet hometown where she watches him train with nunchucks in order to wail on the bully who tortured him during his formative years.

“Eagle vs. Shark” could best be pegged as an anti-romantic comedy; each of the misfit duo’s wry, deadpan performances is so unfit for the genre’s idealistic conventions. Thing is, it’s never made clear if we’re supposed to be laughing at or with these oddballs on parade, resulting in little laughter at all.

Through its entirety, in fact, “Eagle vs. Shark” appropriately upholds its title – at war with its characters and their bumbling predicaments. It seems unsure whether to sympathize or scoff; Lily’s decisions, especially, appear depthless and unexplored. She just wades knee-deep in foolish situational infatuation.

She and Jarrod have little in common aside from their nerd-dom (and matching facial moles). It is difficult to understand why she truly loves him enough to endure all his ridiculousness, and audiences will have a mighty hard time believing that such an adorable, kindhearted woman would stick by such an insufferable jerk.

Writer/director Taika Cohen is an obvious budding talent (especially in his attempts at unlikely character study), and his film has an entertainingly surreal tilt. Bits and pieces are even laugh-out-loud funny, but for the most part, he seems to be trying much too hard to not try hard at all. Plus, it’s been done before: Remember that other small-time flick about small-time weirdoes? Cohen’s enjoyment of 2004’s “Napoleon Dynamite” would, in most circles, be considered downright infringement. Gosh!

“Eagle vs. Shark” is very much a South Island version of Jared Hess’ surprise hit, but one that merely sparks and fizzles in its struggle to draw proper love portraiture. Affection, inner angst and simple intelligence are sadly reduced and, at times, thrown to the wolves for cheap laughs.

Lily, Jarrod and others are painfully human, both burdened and propelled by the personal histories buried deeper than most comedies are willing to dig. But with so much desperate eccentricity, it’s hard to connect with anyone but the leading lady. Unfortunately, she spends most of her screen time being unjustifiably mistreated for comic effect, making the warm-‘n’-fuzzy finale seem out of place.

Still, “Eagle vs. Shark’s” focus on Lily is ultimately its saving grace. Unabashed, unfailing love molds her into something real and endearing, and her glow helps the film gel into the story of a woman who adores a likely undeserving man no matter what.

When all is said and done, shark trumps eagle, and just about everything else.