Nerdy high-schooler makes for hilarious hero in hometown farce
Directed by Jared Hess
Cast: John Heder, Tina Majorino
Who is Napoleon Dynamite? Well, fans of Elvis Costello might know him as a one-time pseudonym of the British rocker. But that's not the Napoleon Dynamite we're talking about here. Our Napoleon Dynamite is a creation of the feverishly bored imagination of 24-year-old BYU film student Jared Hess. Napoleon is a painfully awkward high school senior residing in tiny Preston, Idaho (which just happens to be Hess' hometown). He's also the star of the surprise Sundance Film Festival hit Napoleon Dynamite.
Napoleon Dynamite follows the day-to-day trials and tribulations of our titular teen as he navigates the streets, fields and hallways of his stultifyingly static hometown. With his mop of unruly red hair, his tragically unhip glasses and his omnipresent moonboots, Napoleon is like a poster child for Geeks Anonymous. Napoleon's tragically dull home life doesn't do much to improve his social standing in Preston, either. He lives with his wild and crazy grandmother and his balding 31-year-old brother in an aging '70s tract home that would cause Mrs. Brady herself to call in the “Trading Spaces” team.
Hess' absurdly comic film follows a loose set of events: Napoleon's budding romance with fellow geekette Deb (Waterworld's Tina Majorino), his daily battles with town bullies, his growing relationship with his tragicomic uncle Rico and his eventual management of sad sack pal Pedro's class presidency campaign. The events themselves are largely irrelevant. Napoleon Dynamite is really just a string of incidents and jokes centering around our gangly hero and his surreal world of thrift-store fashions, adolescent ennui and off-the-wall nonsequiturs. (Napoleon figures his pal would make a fine class president because of his “sweet moustache-growing skills.”)
Star John Heder cuts a wonderfully memorable figure as the ignoble Mr. Dynamite. His lips hanging slack, his brow furrowed in righteous befuddlement, Napoleon ejaculates his catchphrase “id-iot!” as much to himself as to the contemptible world around him. He's both a heroic and a tragic figure—a kid who's so mind-bogglingly geeky he's gone past hip and right back into geeky again. If he'd grown up in Seattle, you get the impression he'd be the next Beck. Stuck in the backwater berg of Preston, he's just another nobody. Anyone with even a trace of school-age unpopularity in their past will sympathize with this strange creature.
Some have compared Hess' cartoonish debut outing to Comedy Central's animated hit “South Park.” Though both center on small towns, Napoleon Dynamite is much less mean-spirited. Hess is apparently a nice Mormon boy and, though his film isn't even remotely Mormon, it does maintain a strict PG tone. It feels so off-kilter, though, that most viewers will hardly even notice how good-natured it really is.
A much closer comparison would be to Mike Judge's unique feature Office Space. Episodic, deadpan and filled with subversive humor, Napoleon Dynamite has “cult hit” written all over it. Of course, not everyone takes to a cult hit, and a great many audience members won't get the joke, finding the entire exercise weird, nerdy and pointless. Those who do catch the joke will laugh uncontrollably over Hess' love/hate relationship with stifling small-town America and his pure, unbridled affection for freaks and geeks.
Preston (where the film was actually shot) is portrayed as a strange, timewarped town stuck sometime in the mid-'80s. The residents are part teen movie stereotypes, part loving odes to human imperfection, each more eccentric than the last. Napoleon himself is a singular creation, an intellectually and emotionally stunted adolescent who's had no chance to shine in his pathetic hometown. He's lost in his world of doodling, A/V club meetings, tetherball and deadly ninja training. When our hero finally does get the chance to show off his “sweet skills,” it's a moment of goofy, transcendent glee—like Flashdance for special ed students.
Laced with unexpected humor and indelible comic images, the queer creation known as Napoleon Dynamite is, to quote the man himself, “flippin' sweet!”
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