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Entries in Napoleon Dynamite [2004] (1)

Tuesday
Jan212014

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

A Freakin' Idiot's Take on a Comedy Classic

Movies like Napoleon Dynamite make me question not only my skill as a film critic, but also the entire profession's legitimacy. Ten years ago, Jared Hess' Sundance smash became an inescapable pop phenomenon. By the time I got around to watching it on DVD, I was so prepared for the tidal wave of off-beat hilarity I'd been assured awaited me that I was genuinely thrilled to press "Play". Eighty-two minutes later, my wife and I looked at each other, angrily, and wondered if the world had gone mad--or if we had. Fast-forward a decade, to a thankful me rejoicing that Kicking the Seat wasn't around back then: in my short-sighted rage, I might have written a scorched-earth review of one of my favorite comedies.

Maybe the film just wasn't for me at the time. Maybe I'd expected something different--a traditional comedy, perhaps? Whatever the case, it took two subsequent viewings for my wife and I to fall in love.* We revisited Napoleon Dynamite five years back, and walked away thinking it wasn't that bad. Last week, we popped it in and enjoyed fits of giddy admiration. Now that I've qualified the hell out of this review, let's get to the meat of it.

Napoleon (Jon Heder) is the world's most awkward teenager. He lives in Idaho with his grandmother (Sandy Martin); his tech-obsessed, nerdy older brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell); and their pet llama, Tina. When Grandma takes a spill on a dune-buggying excursion, the boys' creepy Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) moves in and upends their lives with a series of get-rich-quick schemes. This setup is about as close as the film comes to a plot: Napoleon Dynamite is really a series of well-strung-together episodes that wind up feeling like a complete story. From Kip's budding romance with an on-line lover (Shondrella Avery); to Napoleon's determination to help his new best friend, Pedro (Efren Ramirez) win the high school presidency; and our struggle to get inside the head of a weirdo obsessed with mythical creatures, martial arts, and tater tots, Hess and co-writer/wife, Jerusha, leap the narrative pitfalls we expect from a teen comedy to deliver something resembling a montage of actual high school memories.

Two things set the Hess' film apart from the slop that's generally served up to young audiences. First, and most notably, it upholds a refreshing level of cleanliness. It's easy to assume that the filmmakers' Mormonism inspired their policy of no profanity, nudity, or teen drug use--and maybe it did--but this isn't a work of propaganda. It's simply a reflection of values we don't often see aimed at this demographic, and proof positive that a movie can be sensational without being sensationalistic.

The second component, the Hess' lack of cynicism, is perhaps its most winning. Napoleon must endure all matter of humiliation, from bullying and mockery at school to a home life marked by being the lowest vessel of dysfunction on a slanted genetic totem pole. Though he projects an air of flinching superiority and wouldn't know a social cue from a cue stick (I've begun to wonder if his is a case of un-diagnosed Asperger's), he goes out of his way to help his friends. The movie does the same, even for its seemingly unredeemable characters: Uncle Rico, a scummy character who can't escape the rose-tinted glory of his average high school football career, gets a shot at happiness. Despite its relentlessly positive attitude, Napoleon Dynamite doesn't feel forced or preachy; it's simply a really good feel-good movie.

Speaking of "forced", I think one of my problems with the film early on was its ostensible over-abundance of quirkiness. Though set in 2005 (a detail I finally picked up on in the third viewing), the Hess' version of small-town Idaho resembles a Twilight Zone-like bubble in which a 1980s suburb is somehow connected to the Internet and hip-hop culture. Corded phones, moon boots, and candy-colored hair accessories abound. Napoleon's would-be girlfriend, Deb (Tina Majorino) takes Glamour Shots of Kip and Uncle Rico for their start-up business portraits. And, again, Napoleon's family has a pet llama.

Perhaps this goes back to the hype surrounding the movie, but I just couldn't stomach all the preciousness of what I perceived to be the Hess' proto-hipsterism. Had I gone into Napoleon Dynamite cold, I might have better appreciated the filmmakers' earnest and unique voice, and not mistaken it as an obnoxious bid for attention.** Napoleon Dynamite is a lovely and funny movie. If you've somehow avoided it for all these years, due to a million poor imitators of Heder's signature passive-aggressive outbursts ("Gosh!") or the ubiquitous "Vote for Pedro" t-shirts that wallpapered Hot Topics nationwide for half a decade, I suggest you block out the noise and give the film a fair shake. You may just come away surprised and a little touched. Or not: as we've just established, I have terrible taste in movies.

*With the movie.

**Though I certainly wouldn't have known to stick around for the awesome post-credits sequence, which features Kip's instant-earworm of a love song.