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Low-budget 'Dynamite' explodes with goofy charm

By: Sean Means
Date: 2 July 2004
Source: Salt Lake Tribune

Rating: *** 1/2 [3.5 stars out of 4]

Idaho outcasts make a statement in this offbeat comedy.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Napoleon Dynamite.

He is a student at Preston High School in Preston, Idaho. His interests include drawing, dancing, martial arts and jumping ramps on his bicycle. When something strikes his fancy, he proclaims, "Sweet!" And, though he is frequently picked on by bullies and irritated by his home life, he exudes an odd optimism that inspires those around him.

In short, he is one of the most original movie characters I have seen this year, and makes the low-budget movie that bears his name, "Napoleon Dynamite," a goofy charmer.

Napoleon (played by Jon Heder, who is set to graduate from Brigham Young University in August) lives with his energetic grandma (Sandy Martin) and his older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who spends hours a day "chatting with hot babes online." When Grandma is injured in a dune-buggy accident, Napoleon's obnoxious Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a preening door-to-door salesman who still relives his high-school football glory, moves in.

More annoyances await Napoleon at school, where the jocks pick on him and the popular girls, notably the perky Summer Wheatley (Haylie Duff), studiously ignore him. Napoleon makes a few friends among his fellow outcasts -- like Deb (Tina Majorino), who earns money taking Glamour Shots around town, and Pedro (Efren Ramirez), an introverted Mexican-American who, with Napoleon's support, runs for student-body president against Summer.

Director (and Heder's BYU classmate) Jared Hess makes the most of his indie-film limitations. He brings a sharp look and impeccable comic timing to the low-budget production, and smartly sprinkles enough familiar faces (like Dietrich Bader, from "The Drew Carey Show," as a martial-arts instructor) in among the unknowns.

Hess co-wrote the script with his wife Jerusha (who, in a further sign of the movie's do-it-yourself vibe, also is the costume designer), and based these characters on his siblings and friends growing up in Preston. This helps explain why even the film's oddest moments -- like Rico's experiments with a mail-order time machine, or the school's Helping Hands team performing a sign-language version of "The Rose" -- come off as spookily authentic.

Hess has an affinity for his oddball outcasts, and understands they are quite happy being who they are. In a more conventional movie, Napoleon would blossom out of his nerdy shell, shed the moonboots and straighten out his permed hair. But Hess and Heder allow Napoleon to remain his geeky self from beginning to end, a guy who -- like his movie -- dares to be different and succeeds.

REVIEW: Napoleon Dynamite

By: Jeff Vice
Date: 28 June 2004
Source: Deseret News

Rating: ** 1/2 [2.5 out of 4 stars]

Quirkiness and goofiness can carry "Napoleon Dynamite" only so far. Once you get past that, there's not a whole lot more to the film.

This is basically a collection of hit-and-miss skits that are stumbling around in search of a story line. Not that you really expect more than that from a comedy, but this one needs something.

Still, there's no denying "Dynamite's" unique voice. To simply write it off as simply a Generation-Y "Revenge of the Nerds" would be unfair. And when it's funny, it's genuinely funny.

Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is a gawky high schooler in Preston, Idaho. He's not popular at school, and his home life isn't much better, as he's constantly feuding with his older and possibly even more pathetic brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell).

Things gets worse when their grandmother and caretaker (Sandy Martin) is injured in an ATV accident. While she's hospitalized, their creepy Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to stay with them. He also involves Kip in one get-rich scheme after another (including trying to sell an herbal breast-enhancement formula).

In the meantime, Napoleon befriends a pair of fellow outcast students: Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and would-be fashion photographer Deb (Tina Majorino).

As they worry about the big dance, Napoleon encourages Pedro to run for school president, which pits him against the most popular student in school (Haylie Duff, older sister of Hilary).

All of which probably makes the plot sound more coherent than it is.

This is an amiable but rambling film, which owes quite a bit -- both in style and deadpan humor -- to Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers.

"Dynamite" isn't as strong or as emotionally resonant as those films, and there a lot of slow stretches and jokes that fall flat. Co-screenwriter/director Jared Hess probably needed an editor to help him weed out some of the ideas and to help shape the story a little bit better.

To his credit, he does make good use of his cast, which is made up mostly of newcomers and no-names. And though Heder's lead performance is a little self-aware at times, he does get the biggest laughs (especially his dance routine).

The more veteran performers are the ones who don't fare as well here. The usually amusing Diedrich Bader is painfully unfunny in a glorified cameo as a martial-arts instructor.

"Napoleon Dynamite" is rated PG for violence (rough-housing, bullying and some slapstick), some crude humor (including a flatulence gag) and scattered use of some creative profanity. Running time: 86 minutes.

REVIEW: Napoleon Dynamite

By: Eric D. Snider

Grade: A-

"Napoleon Dynamite" is a gloriously quirky, hysterically funny ode to rural dullness that is probably the fairest, most accurate film representation that Preston, Idaho, will ever get.

First-time director Jared Hess, who co-wrote with his wife Jerusha, lovingly mocks the denizens of his hometown, and of many other people's hometowns, through the muted, unenthusiastic characters who inhabit the film. This is a place where culture, fashion and mustaches stopped developing in the 1970s, with the exception of some girls' hairstyles, which managed to reach the mid-'80s. It's a town that viewers will identify as thoroughly dorky, while the residents themselves are oblivious to their gaucheness.

Fans of the Coen brothers ("Raising Arizona," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") will recognize the sort of lovable oddballs here, chief among them being the title character (played by Jon Heder), a high school senior who draws fantasy creatures, fancies himself a nun-chuck expert, and generally behaves with unselfconscious individuality. Napoleon lives with his 30-year-old brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), a pasty, ambitionless fellow who maintains a long-distance Internet relationship with a woman in Detroit. When their grandmother is injured in an ATV accident, their uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to stay, bringing his attachment to his high school football glory days (i.e., 1982) and a number of stupid get-rich-quick schemes with him.

Meanwhile, Napoleon makes friends with Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a new student from Mexico, helps him run for class president, and also attempts to find a date to The Big Dance. Apart from those minor threads, there is no plot to speak of; the narrative here is as insignificant as the town itself. This is a slice-of-life movie about a place where there is no life to slice.

And it's a complete joy to watch. Hess, expanding on his short film "Peluca," has created a wonderfully quaint, dull little town and a passel of entertaining characters to populate it. Heder, all droopy-eyed, slack-jawed and sleepy-sounding, is a riot as Napoleon, his faux-profanity and exasperated sigh earning laughs every time, along with his blissful unawareness of his own strangeness. (He knows he's a little different from most kids, but he has no idea the extent to which it goes.) I don't know what Heder will do with his career after this, but I'll be surprised if he ever creates a character as sharp as Napoleon Dynamite.

Every performer acts with deadpan perfection, including Aaron Ruell as Kip, Efren Ramirez as the indefatigable Pedro, and Jon Gries as the uber-loser Rico. The dialogue is funny, the timing dead on, the physical humor nicely executed. There are no life-altering conflicts, and very little learning, growing or hugging. It's one of the most agreeable, most likable films I've seen in a while. I noticed that even when I wasn't laughing, I was still smiling, happy just to be there.

REVIEW: Napoleon Dynamite

By: Audrey Rock-Richardson
Source: Tooele Transcript-Bulletin (Utah)

Grade: A-

Sometimes an inside joke is a one-liner. And sometimes it takes the form of an entire movie. "Napoleon Dynamite," this year's surprise crowd-pleaser at the Sundance Film Festival, is a giant inside joke for those who know the peculiarities of rural Idaho.

The film's already a phenomenon, especially in Utah. 24-year-old director Jared Hess penned the script with his wife Jerusha; the two both studied film at Brigham Young University. The standards of that institution are apparent in "Napoleon Dynamite," which garnered national attention for being entertaining without including a single swearword.

The movie stars another former BYU student, John Heder, as Napoleon, a supremely geeky loner growing up in Preston, Idaho. Not much happens to Napoleon. He simply gets up, goes to school, and tries to make it through another day.

He lives with his brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), a 30-year-old deadbeat who spends roughly half his day "chatting with babes" on the internet. He also lives with his grandmother, who's recently been injured in an accident on the sand dunes. Due to grandma's condition, Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), who normally resides in a van, comes to stay with Kip and Napoleon.

Kip's fine with the idea, and together Uncle Rico and Kip hatch a brilliant plan to sell various items door-to-door. Napoleon's peeved by the whole affair, especially at having to listen to Uncle Rico's regrets about not becoming a pro football player. Uncle Rico's also making it a lot harder for Napoleon to make and maintain relationships with various teenage love interests.

In the midst of all this, Napoleon becomes friends with Pedro (Efren Ramirez), who wants to run for class president against the most popular girl in school, Summer (Haylie Duff). With the help of an odd and insecure classmate named Deb (Tina Majorino), the three build a hilarious campaign against Summer.

"Napoleon Dynamite" doesn't go anywhere. But lack of a tangible storyline actually serves as a viable dramatic devise depicting the absolute nothingness of life in rural communities. Events can come in the form of a lame fist fight, a violent encounter with a cow, or a school dance. Nothing really ever happens, and that's the entire story of Napoleon's life.

Heder's deadpan performance as Napoleon is crucial to the success of the film. Very few could have played such a bleakly oblivious geek with such pizzazz--and also have the ability to perform a so-bad-it's-good-retro-dance scene.

If you get the inside joke of "Napoleon Dynamite," you might consider this one of the funniest movies of the year. Ricks College t-shirts, FFA events, wood-paneled living rooms, ATV accidents at the sand dunes, trips to D.I.--it's all here, and it'll make you laugh yourself sick.

There's not a single uncomfortable or inappropriate moment in the film's entire running time. That in itself is a major victory against the typical Hollywood assumption that a film has to be offensive to be funny and/or entertaining.

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