Creating a convincing drama is easy. We1ve all experienced pain, loss and regret -- just get some decent actors to play it out on camera in a halfway honest way and wait for the awards to roll in. If you really want to cement your credibility, get a good cinematographer to film it so the audience will have nice pictures to look at while they1re absorbing the overwhelming emotion.
Comedy, on the other hand, is an endlessly difficult genre that sometimes makes curing cancer look easy. People tell me that I'm funny, but I don1t think I could ever string together material that would be strong enough to make people chuckle for 90 minutes. And that's not even mentioning the herculean task of making a comedy appeal to a broad audience. "Yes Dear" draws in tens of millions of viewers every week on CBS, but five seconds of basking in its sheer awfulness is enough to send me into convulsions. I thought Christopher Guest's "A Mighty Wind" was easily one of the best movies of last year, a notion that causes some of my best friends to furrow their brows and stare at me in quiet confusion.
The fact of the matter is that no critic can tell you what is or isn1t funny because our senses of humor are so incredibly different. We can witness this undeniable truth in the case of "Napoleon Dynamite," the debut film by Jared Hess, which has inexplicably emerged from the arthouse to invade multiplexes. Hess basically creates about a dozen or so bizarre characters and puts them in situations where they1ll give perfect recitations of perfect lines that aren1t so much quotable in print as they are in person. This is due to the dynamic physicality the actors give their roles, especially Jon Heder as the unicorn-sketching, gatorade-guzzling, perpetually squinting antihero of the title. He films them in a retro minimalism that recalls Wes Anderson without overtly ripping him off.
I thought it was hilarious. So did most of the audience. So did Ty Burr of The Boston Globe, who called it "an inspired dead-end stunt that keeps delivering snarky laughs far longer than it has any right to." MaryAnn Johanson of Flick Philosopher heaped on the praise: 3[an] endlessly cheery film... highly intellectually involving." Roger Moore of The Orlando Sentinel simply awarded it the title of "the funniest film of the summer."
But others disagree. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times is the highest profile hater, remarking, "There is a kind of studied stupidity that sometimes passes as humor, and "Napoleon Dynamite" pushes it as far as it can go." Jeanne Aufmuth of Palo Alto Weekly opts for cheap provocation: "It mistakes insults for jests and racism for narrative guile." Todd McCarthy of Variety writes an entire review about the film's condescending attitude and then, I guess, attempts to demonstrate true condescension: "There are lots of laughs for those who enjoy the sight of bottom dwellers doing stupid things that make them look even more idiotic."
But these potent potables are really just narcissistic salutes to the writers1 supposed wit. Every negative review I1ve read of "Napoleon Dynamite" forwards the view that the film is bad because Hess dislikes and mocks his characters, a ridiculous and naive assessment that sloppily disregards the film's storybook / utopian ending in which everyone ends up happy and, excepting that, inadvertantly casts Bergman, Kubrick and Dreyer as hacks because they weren1t always rapturously in love with their characters.
Forget all that, though. I1ll tell you what you need to know about "Napoleon Dynamite" to know whether or not you1ll like it. Did you like "Rushmore?" Now imagine if it had no depth and was just about making you laugh. Would you like that? If so, that movie is "Napoleon Dynamite." If not, watch "The Princess Diaries 2" or something.
Indie films have an obvious edge over studio projects: They are free to be the best roadside chili dog in Monterey rather than another focus-grouped, taste-feel-engineered McWhatever. The sense of liberty and joy is sometimes palpable and self-justifying, as it is in Jared Hess's Napoleon Dynamite, an Idaho wild one that thrusts us into a high school senior year like no other. Hess has the low-budget-comedy wastrel deadpan -- the one Jarmusch stole from Warhol, and Wes Anderson has made semi-mainstream--down to a science, and his dry pause-and-cut idiosyncrasies are Swiss-timed. But more than anything, the film is an epic, magisterially observed pastiche on all-American geekhood, flooring the competition with a petulant shove.
At the discomfiting core of this delightfully plotless space-out is the titular uber-nebbish (Jon Heder), cursed with a name only Elvis Costello could think up, a toothy pre-man voice that sounds like basset hounds humping, and a talent for essentially nothing at all. Napoleon is so outrageously awkward it's a wonder the jocks at Preston High (which Hess actually attended) don't just beat him to death; it might be the ne plus ultra of cataclysmic pubertal portraits. Beyond even the misaligned-joint body language and entropic curls, Napoleon's a perfectly conceived and executed battery of melodramatic harrumphs, bruised exhalations, defensive squints, clueless pronouncements, and explosively irate retorts. The image of him defiantly hurling a class-prez campaign button down the crowded school hallway earns a laugh days after you see it. Out-cretinizing even Heather Matarazzo's doormat in Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse and Wiley Wiggins's unschooled freshman in Dazed and Confused, Heder's Napoleon is such a fantastic creation you can't help seeing him as both a catastrophically extreme case and the common flailing nerd we all still shelter in our deepest memory banks.
Set in a vague '80s vapor, Napoleon Dynamite is richly inventive but spare--little is, finally, at stake. But the comic details are thick as a brick, most of them willfully absurd: the Idaho landscape of desert highways, Chicano gang cars, chicken farms, and llamas; Napoleon's older, even wimpier brother, Kip (the rather amazing Aaron Ruell), landing a girlfriend he's not aware is a man; the boys' unsavory Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) videotaping himself throwing touchdown passes. Napoleon himself tries to "score" with "babes," finagles a date to the prom (hyper-aware of cliche, Hess minimizes this humiliating set piece, and doesn't even capitalize on Napoleon impulsively mouthing a tobacco chaw and then swallowing it), and coordinates a student-body election run for his only friend, the new, slightly dim Mexican kid in town (Efren Ramirez). But the unlikely climactic triumph aside, Napoleon Dynamite is more concerned with texture and daffy non sequitur, down to the supremely kitschy Casio score by John Swihart.
Mention should be made of Tina Majorino (remember her, from When a Man Loves a Woman and Waterworld?), who as a quiet, misfitty teen entrepreneur wipes her dainty feet on her generation's better-known starlets. But the center of Hess's cyclone is Heder and his tetherball-playing monster teen, who is both the film's forbidding hero and its great object of derision. Unlike the Solondz film, Napoleon Dynamite exudes little sense of social horror; it struggles to maintain a sunny disposition despite the traumatic social meltdown we witness and the apparent fact that Napoleon is headed not for a tech college but for a long, dire career in food service. He's all too emblematic of too many Americans, and if Hess's movie weren't so funny, it'd be a tragedy.
His own private Idaho: Heder (center) (photo: Aaron Ruell)
I saw ND twice. Once at CineVegas (where both screenings were sold-out) and last night at a packed promotional screening. Audiences love this movie. So do I. Made for a reported $400,000, ND is going to be a huge money-maker.
High schooler Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) lives in Idaho with his fed-up grandmother and 32-year old brother Kip (Aaron Ruell). When his grandmother falls off her dune buggy and lands in the hospital, his Uncle Rico (Jon Greis) comes to babysit. Napoleon, who doesn't look at people when they talk to him, keeps his eyes closed most of the time, and speaks in one-word sentences, is miserable at school. He gets beat up a lot. He also lives in a fantasy world where he has martial arts skills. Napoleon has fuzzy red hair, is tall, gawky, and wears big glasses.
Oh yeah, and his bottom lip hangs open. P. Diddy and Chelsea Clinton also have the "hanging lower lip" thing going. It's not a sophisticated look no matter how many diamond necklaces one wears. Napoleon's brother Kip spends hours online in chat rooms. He is having a "relationship" with a woman named LaFonda. He is slight of build, has thin hair, a weak moustache, and wears glasses.
We have all known young men like Napoleon and Kip. They know they are out of sync but can't do a thing about it. I once knew a kid who was worse off then Napoleon: Home-schooled, he went to folk dancing camps with his parents and called them by their first names. A sweet teenager, he would always stand inappropriately too close to people. He also had really bad hair and wore glasses. He and his parents had a secret language.
Uncle Rico is a door-to-door salesman (with a bad wig) who groans about what could have happened to him in 1982, his best year. Dismissive of Napoleon, Uncle Rico enlists Kip to help him sell plastic containers. Uncle Rico's door-to-door sales brings him in contact with Napoleon's classmates. He is further ruining Napoleon's life.
Napoleon befriends a brand-new misfit, Pedro (Efren Ramirez), fresh from Mexico. Pedro is not crushed by the social limitations of Idaho high school. He decides to ask out the most popular girl in school, Summer Wheatley (Haylie Duff) as well as a shy girl Napoleon likes, Deb (Tina Majorino). He also decides to run against Summer for class president. If Pedro wins, Napoleon wants to be his secret service bodyguard.
The casting is terrific with all the actors committed to their characters. What makes this film so charming is everything is true to the story: The clothes, the dialogue, and the frustration of the characters. I was totally behind Napoleon, Kip, Uncle Rico and Pedro. In fact, Pedro's self-confidence was uplifting. I never laughed at any of them, just laughed at how strong each character was under such crushing obstacles as social graces, attractiveness, and the need to have "skills."
Director: Jared Hess
Writers: Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess
Producers: Jeremy Coon, Sean C. Covel, Chris Wyatt
Executive producer: Jeremy Coon, Jory Weitz
Director of photography: Munn Powell
Production designer: Cory Lorenzen
Music: John Swihart
Costume designer: Jerusha Hess
Editor: Jeremy Coon
Napoleon Dynamite: Jon Heder
Uncle Rico: Jon Gries
Kip: Aaron Ruell
Pedro: Efren Ramirez
Deb: Tino Majorino
Rex: Diedrich Bader
Summer Wheatley: Halie Duff
Running time -- 86 minutes
No MPAA rating
Rating: * [1 star out of 4]
Emily Kennard and Haylie Duff in Napoleon DynamiteRidicule rears its ugly head in this dreary comedy that was a most unlikely hit at this year's Sundance Festival.
Preston, Idaho is the scene of the title character's miserable existence. Napoleon (Jon Heder) is the consummate nerd, a geek so un-chic that his own red-meat eating relatives can't stand the sight of him. They're no picnic either: a slow-witted grandma who's kickin' it off-road with her dirt bike; a sad-sack loser of an uncle who sells door-to-door whatchamacallits, and a cranky sib who comes to life in the sleazy privacy of Internet chat rooms.
Napoleon navigates the tricky travails of Preston High with a bitter stupidity that's positively grating. All the cliches are accounted for: the popular girl (Hilary Duff's little sis, Haylie) who turns Napoleon's advances down cold; a sizzling passion for the misunderstood art of tetherball; and equally cretinous buddy, Pedro (Efren Ramirez), who claws his way up from social pond scum, leaving Napoleon behind to wonder where it all went wrong. Zzzzzzz.
There's a fine line between humor and humiliation. Pedro's sad demeanor as he strives for romantic gusto and mounts a campaign for class president invites censure and scorn, not laughs. Election managed to sling its politically wicked bows and arrows with a dark edge that was both stylish and witty. Napoleon plays it ignominiously, mistaking insults for jests and racism for narrative guile.
Director Jared Hess' tone is mockingly mean-spirited, making it virtually impossible to care for his motley crew of misfits. Ugh.
Rating: PG-13 for mature themes and language. 1 hours, 26 minutes.
Napoleon (Jon Heder) is the quintessential high school misfit. Gawky and slack-faced under a red afro and windowpane glasses, he runs in a squatting shuffle, whines every single utterance and punctuates his eternal disappointment with a sigh like a slow leak on a Mack truck. With a fantasy inner life and an outsized weirdo vibe in his day-to-day routine, Napoleon is constantly pantsed, wedgied and body-checked in the halls by the bullies and buttheads of his school.
He'd be a walking sight gag in any other film, but Jared Hess makes Napoleon a special kind of hero at home in his eccentricities.
He lives with his even more socially maladroit older brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), a borderline functional 32-year-old whose personal life is a schedule of Internet chat rooms. And he's raised by an extreme-sports grandmother in a shag-carpet-and-wood-panel home out of the "Brady Bunch" universe.
The nominal plot revolves around Napoleon's attraction to shy loner Deb (Tina Majorino) and efforts to help his friend and fellow social outcast, Pedro (Efren Ramirez), become class president. (Pedro's main qualification: He's the only kid in school with a mustache.) But the story is all in the character and off-balance personality of the film.
Imagine a John Hughes teen comedy remade by Jim Jarmusch and dropped into the town that time forgot. Hess doesn't deliver punchlines as much as a skewed perspective that finds humor in creative eccentricity. His poker-faced direction and the relentlessly blank performances of the high school cast give the screwy antics of the characters a deadpan, matter-of-fact absurdity.
The time-warp of the indeterminate era -- stray references to '80s pop culture collide with '90s technology, '70s thrift-store fashion and '60s garage-sale furniture -- only enhances the surreal austerity of his Preston, Idaho, setting.
A character study in personalities that defy classification, "Napoleon Dynamite" embraces its outcasts without compromising their cockeyed uniqueness. If you're sick of the gross-out gags and sex jokes of contemporary teen comedy, this defiant blast of idiosyncratic individuality just could be your tonic.
Rating: **** [4 out of 5 stars]
If one had to find a problem with teenage underdog movies, one of the most prominent ones would have to be that they always seem to want audiences to feel sympathy for the plight of their sad protagonists. In Napoleon Dynamite, even though the hero of the title (Jon Heder) is a four-eyed teenage misfit with no social skills and a truly frightening haircut - and he couldn1t care less. Napoleon Dynamite is confident about his ability to draw fantasy characters in the pages of his Trapper Keeper ("I'm pretty much the best at it") and isn1t afraid to voice his approval when something goes his way ("Sweet!") or get pissy when somebody asks him what he's doing that day ("Whatever I feel like doing, gosh!"). He's a hero for the ages; it's just not entirely clear what age.
Napoleon Dynamite isn1t much of a film, when you break it down outside the theater, when the cheers have died away and you1re left with the nagging question: But what was it about? Napoleon attends high school in a small Idaho town, living with his much older but just as dweeby brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell) and his grandmother who, at the start of the film, has just landed herself in the hospital after a four-wheeler accident. This precipitates sleazoid Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), with his dreams of lost football glory and ideas about door-to-door sales, moving into the house to watch the boys and generally make them feel crappy about themselves. There's the barest hint of a storyline about Napoleon getting a crush on a girl from his class, Deb (Tina Majorino), but that's really only there to give him somebody to dance with at the prom. Slightly better is Napoleon's friendship with the nearly-mute Pedro (Efren Ramierez), the new kid in school, and the battle they wage against the cool clique in order to win Pedro the school presidency. Oh, and there's a big joke about tater tots - Election it ain1t.
At first, Hess's script and direction feel crassly manufactured, even though it's likely that the whole thing is intensely personal. Moving so episodically from one set-piece to the next (Napoleon plays solo tetherball, hilariously; Napoleon tells a convincing story about hunting wolverines in Alaska for the summer; and so on), Napoleon Dynamite seems like an ode to Bottle Rocket-era Wes Anderson spliced with some rougher DNA from a Todd Solondz, only with little to no point. The setting is ostensibly contemporary, but the screen is loaded with nostalgic Gen-X in-jokes: throwing stars, friendship bracelets, and even a montage set to the theme from The A-Team. Is it all there just to get a condescending laugh or is Hess actually presenting a portrayal of a small town lost in time? The film moves ahead so haltingly that one has plenty of time to contemplate such things.
But, to return to an earlier point, Napoleon is nobody's victim. Yes, jocks might shove him into his locker and his spasmodic tetherball moves won1t win him the love of the school princess, Summer (played with sweet evil relish by Hilary Duff's sister Haylie); but what does that matter when a guy like him has such sweet nunchucks skills? The film's a raggedy piece of work, to be sure, but one that creeps up on you, and by the end of it all, when Napoleon busts out some awesome dance moves to help out a friend in need, he's pretty much guaranteed to win over the geek inside most of us. We1re only human, after all.
Rating: *** [3 out of 4 stars]
EXCERPT: "Leaves viewers with a welcome and all too rare feeling of movie-induced giddiness..."
This comedy was released on June 23. Currently becoming a teen cult phenomenon, the independent film, written and directed by 24-year-old Jared Hess, is gaining popularity week after week.
Even though it isn't showing in DeSoto County, I finally relented and crossed the state line to see what all the buzz is. On a Sunday afternoon, I was surprised to see the theater packed.
"Napoleon Dynamite" is a droll film about a Preston, Idaho, teenager's life.
Wearing nylon boots, Elvis- style glasses, a 'fro, and a blase look, Napoleon drifts through his bizarre family's antics such as granny's dune buggy accident, his brother's biracial marriage and the visit of his weird uncle, who still wishes it was 1982.
The other half of his life is mainly taken up by high school. There, he befriends a new Hispanic student, campaigns for a friend running for class president, plays solitary tether ball, draws "ligers," constantly gets slammed into lockers and is known as a geek.
In fact, Napoleon is so geeky, that even the nerds don't really co-exist with him.
The first thing I liked about this movie is that it wasn't trying to be something it's not. It's a fresh, down-to-Earth movie that tells Napoleon's life story realistically. Napoleon isn't your everyday dork trying to fit in and be cool.
Instead, he is happy being himself, not caring what other people think. He is direct and honest. Sometimes, he is even a bit blunt, lacking tactfulness.
Yet, you can't help but like him. From his tater tot-toting pockets to his magic animal drawings, Napoleon is realistically quirky. Somehow, he reminds us of how we all live outside of society's norms. He makes us remember all the uncomfortable moments in our lives when we stood alone.
For instance, Kip, his brother, meets a lady in a chat room. She comes to visit. Eventually, they marry each other. While society may frown upon such an inter-racial marriage, Napoleon declares how "lucky" his brother is. He sees his brother's happiness, not the racial issue.
Napoleon doesn't get stressed out over what society values or the exploits of his family. He just goes on living his own life and doing what he believes is best. Unlike some teens, Napoleon is loyal to his few friends. When the entire school student body makes such loyalty uncomfortable, Napoleon never waivers or disowns his friends.
This geek has admirable traits.
Most of all, it's just an entertaining film. It doesn't try to make a profound statement. It doesn't try to glitter or polish high school life.
"Napoleon Dynamite" is exploding box office records with a consistent, steady following. I'm giving it an A for blowing me away with its novelty. And, I'll probably be in line next week to see it again.
Hallie Woodward is a student at Olive Branch High School. Her grading system: A = Awesome, excellent; B = Better than average; D = Desperately staring at exit; F = Flunked, hoping for fire alarm to go off.
Rating: *** [3 stars out of 5]
Like a series of skits strung together into a feature film, Napoleon Dynamite is fitfully funny but ultimately hollow. Director and co-writer Jared Hess crafts a memorable figure in the title character (Jon Heder), a sort of nerd version of Beavis and/or Butt-head, who spends his time in rural Preston, Idaho, playing tetherball, feeding his grandmother's llama and hanging out with laconic best friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez).
Without anything resembling a plot, Hess simply surrounds the awkward, dim Napoleon with a cast of equally bizarre characters, and presents bits in what most closely resembles a three-panel comic strip: Napoleon's fey brother (Aaron Ruell) finds love on the Internet; Pedro runs for class president; Napoleon's oily uncle Rico (Jon Gries) tries to use a time machine to head back to 1982 and relive his high-school-football glory days.
The bits are hit-and-miss, though the funny ones are often very funny. Hess' characters, as distinctive as they can be, rarely go beyond caricature. His attention to detail has brought him comparisons to Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums), and while he shares Anderson's emphasis of the clever over the insightful, ultimately Hess' film is just about the gags, and those are mostly enough.
Rating: *** [3 stars out of 4]
Napoleon Dynamite should be required therapy for anyone with a self-image problem. No matter how much of a loser a person believes himself to be, he couldn't possibly be in worse shape than the protagonist of Jared Hess' wickedly funny high school comedy. With a low-key sense of humor and without the slightest whiff of sentimentality, Hess delivers a film about geeks that makes Revenge of the Nerds look like the Hollywood tripe that it is. Napoleon Dynamite isn't about a cute, cuddly, inoffensive movie nerd; the main character is morose, antisocial, and has a working understanding of what happened in Columbine. There's plenty of humor in the film, but the movie is often a little uncomfortable to watch, and Napoleon is not an easy guy to like. Rooting for him takes effort.
One of the reasons why Napoleon Dynamite works is because of its tone. Hess and his actors underplay everything. Similarities to the work of Wes Anderson may be coincidental, but they are present. In many ways, the comedy is funny because the actors aren't playing the material for laughs. These individuals believe in their characters, and that conviction comes across. And if Napoleon and his friends aren't entirely likeable, who says they have to be? As we're laughing at these characters, we're warming up to them.
John Heder plays Napoleon like a teenager who doesn't quite fit into his long, lanky body. The performance is dead-on. I don't know if Heder was a nerd in real life, but he certainly makes us believe. He subsists on a farm with his Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a 30-something ex-jock who lives in the past, and his freaky older brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), who spends most of his waking hours in Internet chat rooms. Despite looking like he's old enough to have completed college, Napoleon is still in high school, where he occupies the lowest rung of the social pecking order (getting slammed into a locker by someone bigger and more self-assured is a daily occurrence). Napoleon's only friend is Pedro (Efren Ramirez), the "new kid." Napoleon doesn't have a girlfriend, but he has his eye on Deb (Tina Majorino) - until Pedro beats him to the punch by asking her to the upcoming dance. So Napoleon has to settle for going with the daughter of one of his uncle's clients.
Not much happens during the course of Napoleon Dynamite. This is essentially a meet-and-greet movie, where we spend about 85 minutes getting to know the smart, sullen, socially maladjusted Napoleon. The biggest events are the dance and the school election, in which Napoleon becomes Pedro's campaign manager. And, as in all movies about losers, there's a chance for a measure of redemption, and Napoleon Dynamite shows its good heart by allowing for a ray of hope at the end. Director Hess (who wrote the film with his wife, Jerusha) has a dry wit and is unconcerned about mocking his characters, but he doesn't let the end credits come without showing them some affection. So, although Napoleon Dynamite may not be the most immediately endearing protagonist to grace the silver screen this summer, there's something memorable about him and the motion picture that bears his name.
Rating: *** [3 stars out of 4]
Seething with teen-angst irritability and an obstinate blind ignorance to just how much of an outcast he is, Napoleon Dynamite may be the biggest dork in the history of high school movies.
Completely lacking in social graces, the lanky, slack-jawed, sleepy-eyed, bed-headed and shoulder-hunched titular anti-hero of this off-kilter comedy (played with unabashed geek gusto by newcomer Jon Heder) can't even manage to speak to a girl without putting his foot in his mouth. But it isn't nerves that bring him down -- it's nerve, as in "you've got a lot of nerve, pal."
"I see your drinking one-percent milk. Is that 'cause you think you're fat?" is his idea of an opening line to a very disinterested girl in the cafeteria of his lifelessly rural-edge-of-suburbia Idaho high school. "You're not. You could be drinking whole."
His unwieldy attempts at forging friendships aren't helped any by the fact that he's decked out in -- from bottom to top -- moon boots (on a perfectly clement fall day), parachute pants with zipper-pouch pockets (where he keeps leftover tater tots from hot lunch), a shrunken sky-blue T-shirt emblazoned with a silk screen of galloping horses, thick and heavy 1970s eyeglasses, and a shock of unruly red curls that he tries in vain to part with a comb.
"Napoleon Dynamite" captures, to hilarious extremes, all the uncomfortable-in-your-own-skin humiliation of teen dorkdom through a character seemingly oblivious to it all as he helps his one friend -- a new kid named Pedro (Efren Ramirez) whose Mexican background has ill-prepared him for life in an Idaho high school -- run for class president against the head cheerleader (Haylie Duff, big sister of Hilary "Lizzie McGuire" Duff).
But the plot is not the film's source of humor; it's the vivid awkwardness of its incidentals.
It's the fact that jocks routinely -- even absent-mindedly -- shove Napoleon into a locker every time they walk past him. It's the fact that, in his Dungeons-and-Dragons fantasy of life, Napoleon is convinced girls don't like him because "I don't have any skills" like bow hunting. Of course, he also claims, "This one gang wanted me to join because I'm pretty good with a long pike."
It's the fact that Napoleon lives with 1) an uncle (Jon Gries) psychotically obsessed with door-to-door get-rich-quick schemes and his own high school days as a failed quarterback, and 2) an arrogant wimp of a 30-ish brother (Aaron Ruell), who is an even bigger geek than Napoleon. And it's the fact that the brother fancies himself a ladies' man because he spends all day in internet dating rooms.
That detail of technology is an inexplicable anomaly since the story otherwise appears to take place in the 1980s -- in all its hair-crimped, puffy-sleeved, "Glamour Shots" and digital-watches anti-glory. And while every scene of the film is thick with atmospheric minutiae and ironic wit, director Jared Hess (who co-wrote with his wife Jerusha) makes a more fundamental slip in the last act, when "Napoleon Dynamite" veers clumsily toward an unfortunately conventional, gift-wrapped ending of geek triumph that is out of character for the nerdy honesty of the film.
Even so, Napoleon stays true to himself in all his clueless, unjustified superciliousness -- and thus the uncomfortable laughs keep coming. Unless you ran with the cool crowd in high school, I can all but guarantee this film will make you smile.
|Bonus material added:|
"Napoleon Dynamite" has added a five-minute "epilogue" for its wide release on Friday. The footage was shot last month and includes a peek into the future of Napoleon and his friends. The film has grossed $4 million since its limited release June 11.
Rating: **** [4 stars out of 5]
Here's the high school film for the rest of us - everyone who wasn't student body president, captain of the football team, class valedictorian or prom queen.
"Napoleon Dynamite," a darling this year at the Sundance Film Festival, is a wonderfully quirky revenge-of-the-nerd comedy with an amazing performance by Jon Heder as the awesomely named title character.
Sadly, that's the only thing awesome about Napoleon, the biggest loser in Preston, Idaho. He lives with his grandmother and his wimpy, brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), 32, who chats online all day with the babes. His Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) can't get over losing the state football title game 20 years ago.
Napoleon's mouth hangs open, his stare vacant, until he blurts out nonsense, such as this summer vacation summary: "I spent it with my uncle in Alaska hunting wolverines!" Or this pick-up line: "I see you're drinking 1 percent milk. Is that because you think you're fat? Because you're not. You could probably be drinking whole milk."
His vocabulary is chock-full of "gosh!" "dang!" and "idiot," not to mention these massive sighs that render his whole body limp. Then there's this gangly misfit's huge red afro, his moon boots and his choice "skills," which sadly fail to impress the chicks.
You'll cringe and feel sorry for Napoleon, who's one of the best movie characters in a long time. But watching him try to survive high school, make friends with a girl (Tina Majorino) and get his friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) elected student body president is an absolute joy.
Mix in flying steak, a pet llama named Tina, a time machine and the Happy Hands Club and you have a wacky, weird high school film that John Waters and the Coen brothers could have co-directed.
Rating: ** 1/2 [2.5 stars out of 4]
Just this past month, Turner Classic Movies presented a 19-film salute to the legendary Saul Bass, the man who almost single-handedly turned opening-credit sequences into an art form. Not one to merely throw blocky letters onto the screen, Bass would create elaborate, visually arresting intros that often were as entertaining as the movies that followed them (among his many credits were Psycho, West Side Story and The Age of Innocence). Decades after Bass helped jumpstart this celluloid innovation, it's gratifying to know that many filmmakers are still pouring resources and imagination into their respective pictures' credits: One look at the opening salvo of, say, Spider-Man 2 shows that this sub-medium is alive and well.
I suspect that Bass (who passed away in 1996) would have loved the opening credits in Napoleon Dynamite. Director Jared Hess presents the names of the cast and crew members either on plates of food or on common items that (as we soon discover) are used by the film's sad sack protagonist. One person's name is spelled out with condiments on a hamburger; another has his scrawled on a scrap of lined notebook paper; yet another can be spotted on the side of a Chapstick. It's a memorable opener, one of the best I've seen recently, yet it also hints at the problem that rests at the off-center of Napoleon Dynamite: What sort of movie is this anyway? The intro suggests a frothy comedy; the film that follows has many funny moments but ultimately feels more like an abject lesson in utter humiliation.
The name Napoleon Dynamite comes courtesy of rocker Elvis Costello, though the treatment of the character frequently owes more to Lou Costello. A sucker who never gets an even break, Napoleon (Jon Heder) is a case study in high school geekiness: A beanpole with an unruly nest of curly red hair (you suspect birds would set up shop there if the guy would ever stop moving), the societal misfit stumbles around with eyes half-shut and mouth half-open, the apparent bastard child of Carrot Top and Shelley Duvall. When he isn't getting slammed into his locker by the jocks, he whiles away the days at his Idaho high school playing tetherball with himself.
At home, the situation is no less gloomy. He and his 32-year-old brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), an even bigger nerd who spends hours on the Internet chatting with "babes," live with their grandmother (Sandy Martin) and her pet llama. Once Grandma gets injured while jumping a sand dune on her ATV, the boys have to put up with the presence of their Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a lunkhead who constantly rhapsodizes about the big game against State back in 1982. But at least Napoleon has finally made a couple of friends who can take his mind off those who bother him (it's rare when he's not calling someone "Idiot!"). Pedro (Efren Ramirez) is the new kid in town, a soft-spoken, slow-witted Mexican immigrant who decides to run for Student Body President against a popular blonde cheerleader (Haylie Duff, Hilary's older sister). And Deb (Tina Majorino) is a sweet, shy kid who's trying to raise money for college by selling homemade keychains and offering glamour shot sessions.
Napoleon Dynamite is an odd little movie that often seems as unsure of itself as its protagonist. Napoleon himself isn't exactly ingratiating, and it's impossible to tell whether Hess and his co-writer (and wife) Jerusha Hess mean for us to laugh with him or at him. If it's the latter, then how exactly are we, the audience members, any different than the bullies who torment him for the duration of the movie? It's one thing to guffaw at a character whose ridiculousness invites affectionate ribbing (for example, Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau), but it's quite another to ask us to chuckle at a person so realistically depicted that he could easily have been attending our own high school (where I suspect most of us would have given him a wide berth as well). Clumsy as they were, even John Hughes' string of teen flicks revealed sympathy for their dorky protagonists, a measure of empathic understanding noticeably absent in this film.
If Hess' goal was to render an accurate portrait of the inner circles of high school hell, his movie is too fanciful to put over that notion. Unlike Todd Solondz's acidic Welcome to the Dollhouse, rife with stinging perceptions, Napoleon Dynamite ends up diluting its potency with some unbelievable side trips. Kip and Uncle Rico are clearly morons, but would they really spend good money to buy a "time machine" on eBay? (This culminates with a silly gag involving injured genitalia.) Would someone with as little to offer as the vapid and juvenile Kip really end up with a successful online match? And the story strand involving Pedro's bid for school office leads to a selfless act on Napoleon's part that unites the entire student body behind him -- ummm, in what universe?
Still, cruel or not, there's no denying that the movie is frequently funny, especially when Napoleon is having to cope with the imbecilic behavior of his brother and their uncle. Tina Majorino, a 90s child actress (Waterworld, Andre) who took off several years to concentrate on school, returns to the big screen with a delicate portrayal, providing the film with its sole semblance of genuine compassion. And as the gangly lead, newcomer Jon Heder delivers a fearless performance that's almost breathtaking in its wormy detail -- regardless of our reservations about the character, Heder nails the dude's idiosyncrasies with frightening precision. Now whether this pays off in multiple film offers remains to be seen: The pitfalls of typecasting combined with the actor's own unorthodox appearance may limit his appeal. But if there's a Revenge of the Nerds remake on the horizon, he's their man.
Rating: **** [4 stars out of 5]
Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is an oddball in Preston, Idaho, and he doesn't care. He lives in his own private world of phantasmagorical creatures (he sketches a "liger," which is a cross between a lion and a tiger) and concentrates on perfecting his tether-ball game. Some very interesting films have been made over the years about idiosyncratic teenagers, and this one is both wacky and endearing. It was a hit at the Sundance Festival and named Best Feature Film at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. Director Jared Hess has come up with a story that challenges us to put ourselves in his characters' skins as we retread our ways down those high school corridors where pain and humiliation are only a step a way.
Napoleon lives with his grandmother, who secretly has a boyfriend and rides her ATV on the sand dunes. When she is injured in a spill, Napoleon's Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to look after him and his 32-year-old brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who spends most of his time in a chat room with Lafawnduh (Shondrella Avery), his soulmate. Napoleon doesn't get along with Rico, who is constantly coming up with new schemes to get rich, such as selling herbal breast enhancements. He lives in a twilight zone of 1982 when he was denied the chance to become an all-star quarterback just when his team needed him most. No wonder he purchases a mail-order time machine and winces when it doesn't work.
Feeling isolated at home, Napoleon makes friends with Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a Mexican newcomer to the town. The two of them are shunned by everyone and yet they persist in outrageous dreams. Pedro wants to take Summer Wheatly (Haylie Duff), the school's most popular and attractive girl, to the prom but is turned down abruptly. Eventually, he decides to run for class president against her. Her campaign slogan is: "With me, it will be summer all year round."
Although Napoleon is attracted to Deb (Tina Majorino), a shy girl who is the town photographer, they have a hard time connecting. They are heart people who realize they are strange but are willing to live with it no matter what the consequences. Deb is the sweetest teenager in town always doing her best to make others look good.
Jared Hess wrote the offbeat screenplay for Napoleon Dynamite with his wife Jerusha. They have created a colorful and cockeyed character in Napoleon with his overbite, large glasses, frizzy red hair, irritation with those who bug him, and frequent temper tantrums. He gets his kicks by riding his bike, performing sing-alongs with the Happy Hands Club, and cow judging with the Future Farmers of America. Near the end of the film, Napoleon gets a chance to strut his stuff, and it is well worth the wait to see him shine on his own terms.
You could probably pull any 20 minutes out of Jared Hess' NAPOLEON DYNAMITE and exhibit it on its own as a promising student short. I bet it might even be funny if the dosage were reduced so significantly.
This obnoxiously quirky tale of teenage angst in some weird nowhere Idaho suburb reveals a cockeyed visual confidence and a bit of pleasant off-center timing, even while feeling sort of like the cinematic equivalent of a lousy Wes Anderson cover band.
The eponymous nerd is played with panache by Jon Heder, and his full-tilt commitment is something to behold. Wearing a bright Chia Pet of red hair and Coke-bottle glasses, and breathing exclusively through his mouth, Napoleon exhales most of his dialogue in a hoarse monotone while gracelessly clomping in and out of scenes. Sometimes after embarrassing himself even more than usual, Napoleon breaks into something of a bent-spine jog--like he's trying to run away while still being crushed by the weight of his humiliation.
Napoleon Dynamite (his name lifted from an Elvis Costello alter ego for no apparent reason) is a dork who gets picked on a lot. He's stuck in the care of his insufferable Uncle Rico (Jon Gries, giving one of my least favorite performances of the year) and puts up with an even dorkier 30ish older brother who wastes entire days online typing to "hot babes" in chat rooms.
Uncle Rico is obsessed with his high school football memories from 1982. In fact, he's going door-to-door selling home breast-enlargement kits so he can save up enough money to buy a time machine from eBay and at last return to the glory days.
(Yeesh. Ever get the feeling a movie is trying too hard?)
After setting up these bizarre, unpleasant characters, there's a fair amount of suspense as we wait for NAPOLEON DYNAMITE to deepen--to develop some sort of empathy and interest in its characters beyond the surface mockery.
I'm still waiting.
Joined by the equally inarticulate Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and a sartorially challenged love interest (Tina Majorino), Napoleon suffers day-to-day indignities and generally makes a tool of himself in every situation. Hess doesn't have much interest in a plot, and there's some half-hearted drama about a school election that doesn't ever really go anywhere. Eventually, the movie ends.
NAPOLEON DYNAMITE isn't insufferable while you're watching it, but there's a bitter aftertaste that's been nagging me for a while now. We're never asked to care about Napoleon and his friends, never given a rooting interest in their inner worlds or ambitions. We're merely invited to giggle as they're all routinely humiliated.
So I'm starting to wonder what, exactly, separates Hess from the bullies who feature so prominently in his film?
Rating: *** [3 out of 4 stars]
"Napoleon Dynamite" was the big buzz hit at the Sundance Film Festival in January, but, honestly, any movie that shows at midnight at 7,000 feet above sea level has already had much of its work done for it. Now that this shoestring oddity has descended to the lower altitudes, it can be seen for what it is: an inspired dead-end stunt that keeps delivering snarky laughs far longer than it has any right to. The film's attitude remains high, and it probably wouldn't hurt if the audience was too.
Directed by Brigham Young University film graduate Jared Hess and written with his wife, Jerusha, "Napoleon" suggests Todd Solondz's "Welcome to the Dollhouse" stuffed into the confines of an MTV interstitial skit. In segments so deadpan as to seem disconnected, the film sketches out the dire adolescent life of the title character (Jon Heder), a gangly Idaho Brillo-head whose nerdiness has achieved cosmic proportions.
Napoleon lives in ranch-house misery with his dirt-biking grandma (Sandy Martin), her pet llama Tina, and his 32-year-old brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), a scrawny ankle-sock-wearing shut-in who spends all day chatting up "babes" on the Internet. (The brothers' sissy-fights are a highlight of the film's early scenes). He's a figure of derision to his schoolmates -- especially queen of mean Summer Wheatley (Haylie Duff, already well on the road to becoming sister Hilary's evil B-movie twin) -- but Napoleon is too ornery to be a sad sack. His eyes screwed shut behind aviator glasses, arms and legs jutting out like a grasshopper's, the character just seems deeply and comically exasperated. How was school? someone asks. "Worst day of my life," Napoleon barks in response. "What did you think?"
He's a cartoon, in other words, but so peculiar and unique as to be nearly heroic. Plus, he has a way with women. "I see you're drinking 1 percent," Napoleon tells a girl. "Is that because you think you're fat? You could probably drink whole milk."
"Napoleon Dynamite" keeps bringing on the freaks, to the point where the estate of Diane Arbus should arguably have been cut a check. In addition to Napoleon and Kip, there's their Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a toupee'd ladies man whose latest shady business venture is selling herbal breast enhancers door-to-door; new kid Pedro (Efren Ramirez), another cafeteria outcast who mounts a surprising bid for student council; Ilene (Ellen Dubin), a Tupperware-obsessed housewife; and Deb (Tina Majorino), Napoleon's possible love interest and a portrait photographer whose instructions to her subjects run along the lines of "Imagine you're in the ocean surrounded by tiny seahorses."
There's a lot more of this -- every scene is a brightly lit 1950s postcard of precision kitsch -- but Hess keeps the laughs coming with timing worthy of Jim Jarmusch and a narrow but controlled performance by Heder as the film's King Geek.
Be warned, though: Some people find this movie cruel in the extreme -- an exercise in empty style that pins its misfits to the wall like captured butterflies. By contrast, its fans (and I'm one, with reservations) know that what makes Napoleon a hopeless spazzola is also what makes him better than all the Summer Wheatleys. He just hasn't realized it yet.
Similarities to "Welcome to the Dollhouse" are obvious, not to mention the entire oeuvre of Wes Anderson. "Napoleon Dynamite" is the more optimistic film, though, and also the lesser one. What remains to be seen is whether Jared Hess has another movie in him -- a real movie, about real people.
Rating: *** [3 out of 4 stars]
EXCERPTS: The hero of "Napoleon Dynamite" has the worst case of teenage nerd syndrome in movie history. Napoleon, a terminal mouth breather, has elevated cluelessness to a lifestyle. He views the world through half-closed eyes from beneath hair exploding in an orange frizz. He has an inexhaustible wardrobe of thrift store T-shirts decorated with unicorns and mustangs.Our man is a loner who devotes his days to perfecting his solo tetherball game (he still loses), drawing bad cartoons (his...
...Napoleon Dynamite has all the markings of a midnight show perennial...
Rating: **** 1/2 [4.5 out of 5 stars]
So, this is very much like a sequel to me. I was first introduced to some of these characters in a short film called "Peluca" that screened at Slamdance 103. I fell in love with the quirky humor of filmmakers Jared and Jerusha Hess, I just wished the effort had been feature length. Welp, I got my wish and this film is every bit as funny as I knew it would be. I'm a smart one. I know my A-B-C's.
Napoleon Dynamite is an uber-geek high school student - thick glasses, red, messy fro, walks kinda like he has a stick up his ass, looks like his mama dresses him - who spends his time drawing flatulent unicorns, scouring the local thrift store for sh-- like bad dance instruction tapes, jamming his pockets full with tater tots and engaging in plenty of other odd activites. As we observe Napoleon's daily eccentricities, we meet his grandmother who goes off to race a quad runner in the desert only to end up putting herself in the hospital, his brother, Kip, who spends most of his time chatting with women online, their bozo door-to-door salesman uncle who plots to build a time machine so he can revisit his football glory days, and Pedro, a new student who Napoleon makes friends with and convinces to run for school president.
The cast playing these eccentric characters is magnificent. Each actor perfectly compliments the Hess's original brand of humor that keep steady giggles bubbling from the audience, inspiring frequent bursts of uproarious laughter. This is definitely one of the most unique comedies you1ll see all year. No doubt about it.
Although this husband and wife effort ignited the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, critic Larry Carroll is among those who feel it is more along the lines of a comedic implosion.
The old saying goes that if you don1t have anything nice to say you shouldn1t say anything at all, so let's start this review with the following well-intentioned observation: the opening credits for Napoleon Dynamite are terrific.
They might just be the best of the year, in fact: displaying the names of the actors and filmmakers involved with cute, fun little shots of food being placed on a table. A peanut butter sandwich appears on a plate, with someone's name and position written in jelly; another name and title appears via a corndog and some ketchup. One by one, a hand places them on a table as a perky, quirky title song establishes a lighthearted, experimental mood. They1re everything opening credits should be - creative, unique, and keeping within the spirit of what the audience is about to see.
Then a huge sucking feeling can be felt as the movie begins and all that innovative, free-wheeling momentum is dragged out of the theatre. Within a handful of moments, it's replaced by the sad realization that you1re trapped in your seat for the next hour and a half, watching a self-aware, condescending film led by an actor doing a caricature that falls somewhere between the cartoon character Butthead and Poindexter from Revenge of the Nerds.
Napoleon Dynamite is the name of that character, an angry, dorky, hopelessly clueless loner as performed by first-time actor Jon Heder. Napoleon wanders around Preston High School breathing through his mouth, with his eyes barely open, telling other students that he knows how to use numchuks as they take turns slamming him into his locker.
At home, things aren1t much better: his brother Kip (Aaron Ruell, also in his debut) is an emotionless, buttoned-up recluse who spends his days selling Tupperware and hanging out in Internet chat rooms; Uncle Rico (Jon Gries, Jackpot) has some detachment issues with his high school football career and has evolved into someone who seems one step away from child molestation; and Grandma (Sandy Martin, Jawbreaker) is the only seemingly normal person in the household, and she skips the scene a few minutes into the movie.
After a long time immersing the audience in the bizarre world of Napoleon Dynamite, the film finally gets around to some semblance of a plot revolving around the teenager's desire to help his quiet friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez, The District) get elected class president. To do so, the duo will have to overcome the powerful support of popular girl Summer (Haylie Duff, Hillary's big sister) and figure out which of them should end up with fellow outcast and part-time Glamour Shots photographer Deb (Tina Majorino, Waterworld).
First-time director and co-writer Jared Hess (a 24-year-old Brigham Young University dropout with a $500 student film that got him into Hollywood and whose story is probably far more entertaining than that of Napoleon Dynamite's) is a gifted director who simply can1t rein in his own desire to out weird everything else around him. Every character in the script he concocted with his wife Jerusha is extreme (no normal people are around to contrast them), every set piece is purposefully awkward (a wall telephone is placed too high for no apparent reason) and most of the character's motivations make sense only to them. Like a confused film school student, Hess is happy to pay homage to David Lynch, The Coen Brothers, Alex Cox, Terry Zwigoff, Harmony Korine and a dozen other directors, but doesn1t have enough passion to say much of anything in his own voice.
Without his ability to tap into the unconscious and tell a story based on raw emotions, David Lynch would just be a guy who likes to have a llama walk through his scenes for no reason other than satisfying his own absurd sense of humor. When Napoleon walks over to his fence to feed his pet llama, that's exactly what Hess has reduced himself to - there's no point to it other than to say, "Look, a llama!".
And while that kind of unrealistic self-indulgence may be acceptable in small doses, in this film it's strung together in huge piles of nonsense - a bike pulling a guy on roller skates, a man shooting a cow, a character who shaves his head and then decides to wear an ill-fitting wig to cover his shame - that none of us are likely to see in real life, that have nothing to do with this film's plot, and that do little to make the characters more endearing to us. Anybody could take an old man and make them walk through a scene dressed as an astronaut with no pants on and carrying an armload of Twinkies - but being able to establish a reason why we1re seeing it is what separates the Coens and Richard Kelly from wannabes like Gregg Araki, Olivier Assayas and Hess.
What's worse, the central character is an underdog that you very well may not feel like rooting for. Napoleon is a bitter, miserable soul who spends most of the movie complaining while he takes turns putting down those around him and serving as his own worst enemy. Hess wants you to identify with him as an outsider; he wants you to hope that Nap and Deb end up together and, to a lesser degree, that Uncle Rico finds love with a severely underdeveloped character whose daughter goes to Preston High.
The audience is also supposed to hope that Pedro wins the election, apparently just because he's a mild-mannered minority and his competition is a corn-fed blonde with a smile on her face. At the end of the day, none of these plotlines is adequately built up or paid-off - instead, we just get more shots of weird stuff and pratfalls.
Napoleon Dynamite is likely to be billed as a cult classic, and that's fine, but understand that there are two types of cult movies: those that you only need to show someone to make them love, and those that polarize audiences and become noteworthy by so fully pleasing fifty-percent of the people who see it that they go on to become rabid fans. Underperforming gems like Heavenly Creatures, Office Space and Dazed and Confused fall into that first category, while films like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, the Highlander series and this fall into the second. These are the films that polarize audiences - that some will memorize every word of as if it were scripture, while others will come out cursing the name of the director, his family, and his family's neighbors.
The film does have some redeeming qualities, including a minority lead character, a welcome (if unnecessary) sequence scored to the song from the "A Team", and the refreshing look of a movie that was actually shot on location, in Idaho no less. Those things can only bring a film so much goodwill, however. Napoleon Dynamite is a movie whose big emotional moment is supposed to pivot on a scene with the lead character up on stage, dancing wildly as a crowd stares at him in confusion.
Like Nap, his film flails away with a refreshing enthusiasm at first, but ultimately gets its music shut off without providing much of anything except an unfunny freak show.
Rating: **** [4 out of 5]
It was a bold move to make NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, a wry and sober comedy about family neglect and social ostracism that is deeply, truly funny. This is a film that dares to delve into the realms of the truly unlikable and to then go on to make the audience care about them. Maybe not enough to share a table with them in the high school cafeteria, but enough to want things to work out for them. Or as well as things can work out for people with the social skills of a zebra mussel.
Napoleon (Jon Heder) lives in a parallel dystopian universe somewhere in rural Idaho, where life is as tough as the landscape is spare. His thirtysomething brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), resplendent in khaki shorts, sandals and white socks under his slip on sneakers, spends his days in online chat-room while dreaming of overcoming his gerbil appearance by becoming a martial arts threat. Their grandmother, perhaps understandably, is a woman more interested in her pet lama and her dirt-bike racing than in them. When Grandma takes a spill during a particularly tricky dirt-bike maneuver, she calls in Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), who has been reliving his last college football game since the he played it in 1982. This committed carnivore is an equally committed loser with bizarro Rat Pack fashion choices. When not wolfing down steaks and making life even more uncomfortable that usual for Napoleon, he's dragging Kip into questionable entrepreneurial endeavors, such as the Bust Must herbal enhancer. Meanwhile, academic life in the local high school consists of being slammed against his locker by the jocks and spinning wild tales of numchuck prowess and fashion model girlfriends for anyone who gets within earshot. When the new kid, Pedro (a spookily deadpan Efren Ramirez), arrives, Napoleon suddenly has a friend, sort of, and the natural order shifts just a bit into uncharted territory and uncertain waters.
Jared Hess, director and co-writer with Jerusha Hess, has created a low-key excursion into the cinema of isolation; made manifest the inner life of the geekiest of the geeks, the nerdiest of the nerds and discovered that angst is hilarious. It's a static place where every day is like the day before and only an imagination that transforms reality makes it all palatable. His shots are equally static, enclosing his characters in spaces into which they never quite fit proportion-wise, underscoring their misfit status. His genius is to focus almost as obsessively as Napoleon does on his various skill sets, on the minutiae of small-town life and its inherent eccentricities as lived by the rejects too far gone for any clique to offer refuge. A chicken farmer for whom Napoleon re-roosts chickens, foisting off on him a lunch of fly-ridden sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs washed down with something I1d rather not go into. There's the carefully studied boredom of his classmates when he presents his current event topic for the week, the one that involves the Loch Ness Monster, Japanese scientists, and Scottish wizards. Each indignity swallowed with a shrug that barely conceals the gurgling resentment that blows intermittently and with an anger that is as tentative as everything else our guy tries. Paradoxically, his Napoleon retains a zest for life that nothing in that life seems to justify. That's the essence of his appeal and of the surreal absurdity of the film.
Heder never tries to win us over by going warm and fuzzy. He remains resolutely off-putting throughout, slack-mouthed beneath his wreath of wiry hair, speaking with a defiant monotone that expects to be either ignored or assaulted, and using a gait that involves not quite moving his arms and remaining ramrod straight even while running. It's the absolute seriousness with which he imbues Napoleon, though, that is the most striking. Each moment is lived at a fever pitch of laconic melodrama.
There isn1t much of a plot. It's more a series of vignettes that segue into each other, punctuated with the oddities of the outcast, be it a putative time-machine that inflicts the sort of injury that might hinder future generations, or Napoleon's particular genius for discerning the defects in milk during a Future Farmer's of America tasting competition. There's a school election with Pedro making a spectacular underdog bid for class president against the reigning teen angel (Haylie Duff), and a school dance that both serve to bring up short different protagonists with varying degrees of fairness. And, of course, there's romance. Even geeks have hormones, and the flat-line longing that Napoleon develops for the nerd princess with the not quite perky pony tail (Tina Marjorino) is at once poignant and, well, just a little nauseating.
NAPOLEON DYNAMITE exists in that rarified world of Alan Cox's REPO MAN or Jim Jarmusch's DOWN BY LAW. It's a world very close to ours and yet, uniquely its own, fluttering just outside reality, but reflecting it all too sharply.
"Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story": ***1/2 (out of four)
starring Vince Vaughn, Christine Taylor, Ben Stiller, Rip Torn
written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber
"Napoleon Dynamite": ** (out of four)
starring Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, Jon Gries, Aaron Ruell
screenplay by Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess
directed by Jared Hess
Maybe the only thing American Splendor really got right was the importance of the first Revenge of the Nerds as buoy (along with Martha Coolidge's Real Genius of the following year), marking that unquenchable spark of hope nurtured by the freakishly unapologetic intellectuals nestled in there among the Reagan-era "uber-normals." Curious that the idea of "blessed are the meek" and "blessed are the merciful" in Christ's Beatitudes are so often subsumed by the scolding Old Testament Commandments (Moses, anyway, as Kurt Vonnegut Jr. points out) in right-wing platforms and Southern courthouses. Curious enough so that the premise of Revenge of the Nerds washes out as a contest between the liberals on the one side (smart, well-read, poor, black, gay, horny--recalling that the nerds of the film are "adopted" by a black fraternity)--and the conservatives on the other (white, privileged, stupid, shallow, religious), while the premise of Real Genius is that same liberal pool arrayed against that same conservative pool but summarized by our military-industrial complex--curious because in both films, the liberals are clearly the meek and the merciful while the white-collar conservatives are the manifest oppressors. I always wanted to think of Christ as a studied socialist hippie: at the least, His Barry Gibb look in the Western canon would finally make sense.
If there is poignancy in the timing of a film's release and, more importantly, in the timing of a group of like-minded films' releases (that appear driven by parallel developments rather than products of the sequel or knock-off instinct), then it bears examining, as President George W.'s administration has proven itself fond of late, the similarities between Bush Jr.'s and President Reagan's administrations, particularly as there are a great deal of similarities between certain chunks of films released during their respective terms in office. For each Revenge of the Nerds or Real Genius or Risky Business there is now a School of Rock and Envy and The Girl Next Door: the rise of the nerd class, the deplorable brainiacs who screw up the grading curve, do their homework, and don't pretend to be facile and brutal and WASPy to fit into an image of comfortable national conformity. Our constant squabbling about a child's right not to believe in a nation under God or Bush Jr.'s answer to Reagan's "City on the hill" refrain--"See, a C student can do pretty well for himself"--speak to that rage for brutishness and anti-intellectualism. Of all the things wrong with Al Gore, the unforgivable sin was that he knew things and he was completely humourless about it--to Gore, things like knowledge and aptitude weren't merely unfunny, they were also something of which to be proud. A big problem was his boastfulness and stiffness; a bigger problem was that he made people feel inferior for what he knew. And the biggest problem is that so many Americans don't want a leader who is, perish the thought, superior to them intellectually--who can say two sentences that make sense together, and have read books that we haven't. Who have, let's face it, read some books.
So add to the pool of George Jr.'s term's cinematic legacy the subversively funny and smart Dodgeball and the subversively dim-witted and populist Napoleon Dynamite: the one dissecting our institutions of media, cult of beauty, and veneration of professional sports, the other trafficking in them to massage a few angry yuks at the expense of its misfit gallery. Both ostensible underdog uplift comedies in the spirit of Nerds/Genius (indeed, characters break down along nerdsploitation lines, with Dodgeball going so far as to gift original Nerd Curtis "Booger" Armstrong a cameo), each deals with the idea that race and sexual leaning, just by the fact of them, relegates folks firmly into the outcast caste. Dodgeball satirizes the schism in our society between the meek and the monstrous and Napoleon Dynamite unspools like Gummo if Harmony Korine had played it strictly for laughs. Just because Napoleon Dynamite is considerably funnier than the execrable Saved! doesn't make it any easier to forgive for its portrayal of the left side of the aisle as a shambling crew of misfits trundling along behind their Marxist circus carts.
In Dodgeball, Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn) doesn't pay taxes, doesn't pay his bills, and has a car that has to be pushed to his "Average Joe" gymnasium. Because he doesn't care very much about collecting his members' dues, the bank has foreclosed on him and he's in danger of being bought out by Tony Little-esque fitness napoleon White Goodman (Ben Stiller). Le Fleur is a flower, and White Goodman has a name like a Nazi pilgrim. Like Saved!, Dodgeball boasts a wheelchair-bound character (there played by Macaulay Culkin), but unlike Saved!, the wheelchair-bound character in Dodgeball (Patches O'Houlihan (Rip Torn)) is aggressive, virile ("I have hookers in my room, my treat"), and not the slightest bit like the rubber effigy that ate Culkin. Former dodgeball champion Patches volunteers to coach the Average Joes (among them a black homosexual, a girl who likes unicorns as much as Napoleon Dynamite likes Pegasus, and various nerd archetypes) in the tournament contrivance that will win them enough money to avoid being bought out by Goodman.
Best in the sketch format, Ben Stiller is as good as he has been in years as the messianic, pathetic Goodman, who's addicted enough to food that he zaps himself with a car battery whenever his thoughts stray to donuts and is eventually discovered masturbating with a slice of pizza. Such is a literalization of the love/hate relationship the United States has with its lunch (read Michelle Stacey's fabulous Consumed: Why Americans Love, Hate, and Fear Food), delivered here with an extraordinary amount of verve and concision. Goodman's chain of fitness facilities features a central big-screen through which an image of Goodman appears to interact with his patrons, spurring them to physical exhaustion while ordering his minions to tamper with the scales in the women's locker room--the best image of the efficacy of Orwellian groupthink and intimidation since the underestimated Gattaca. When he and a group of rubber-suited, surgically and drug- (and radiation-) mutated thugs decides to enter the same dodgeball contest as the Average Joes, the picture evolves into a sharp satire of the hyperbole and hypocrisy of our beloved professional sports culture.
Lost in the furor over the revealing of Janet Jackson's sad breast at the Super Bowl halftime show is the memory of the gyrations of the cheerleaders, the sexual content of the commercials, and the substance of all the performances that came before the Tit. There is a disconnect in American culture between implication and what is implied--the eye can be drawn fetchingly toward the breasts and the buttocks in any number of beer commercials suggesting that women like to be f---ed by dogs and bears (why does a Coors commercial refer to the length of a matchmaking dog's tail? Nine inches), but there is somehow nothing more threatening to the piously sanctimonious than an actual breast or buttock. But there is no separation between flesh and contest no matter the amount of war euphemisms attempting to obscure the homoeroticism of angry touch, and so Dodgeball has Goodman's office decorated with a pair of cast-iron Greco-Roman wrestlers before decking out its heroes in S&M gear due to a uniform mix-up. ("Good toss by that submissive," emerges as a classic throw-away quotable--as do most of announcer Gary Cole's references to Lewis Carroll and Sappho.) A late cameo by Lance Armstrong is as brilliant as an early cameo by David Hasselhoff, and the match nationalism of the picture reminds of The Saddest Music in the World, if only Guy Maddin had a sense of humour about himself. Dodgeball is a barometer of the United States circa 2004: provincial, deluded, mired in a time where a ballistic defense system seems like a better idea than disarmament and "optimism" has become the only politics that matter. It's wise enough about itself and the world that a late treasure chest full of happiness is labelled "deus ex machina," and it manages to stay silly enough in its crotch-shot theatrics to be hilarious without--save one unfortunate gag about a fat cheerleader--contradicting the intelligence that drives its satire with a steady, sure hand.
On the other end of the spectrum is Napoleon Dynamite, the Sundance-approved debut of Jared Hess (just as Dodgeball is the feature-length debut of commercial director Rawson Marshall Thurber), which finds endless glee in beating the holy hell out of the demented denizens of Preston, Idaho. Chief victim is the singularly unpleasant Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), a carrot-topped, buck-toothed moron living with his chatroom-addicted brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) and, after an ATV accident lays their grandmother low, his lost-in-time Uncle Rico (Jon Gries). It's a series of vignettes strung together by nothing until a late contrivance of school pageant nerd make-good tries to send its audience to the parking lot feeling as though they're in Napoleon's corner instead of the film-long jock position of laughing at just how much of a dweeb this guy is.
I wondered for a long time why it was that the jock and cheerleader characters weren't developed at all to provide a foil for the capering contortions of Napoleon, his best friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez), Kip, Uncle Rico, and eventual love interest Deb (oh look, Tina Majorino's still alive) before I realized that the bullies were us. A scene in which Napoleon is shoved--hard--against a locker, accompanied by the sound of flies buzzing (Hess' favourite commentary on his characters), happens as he stares vacantly through the fourth wall--the effect of said action being that we've essentially been put in the position of the pusher, so that the humour we derive from that action is the same as the titillation we derive from Norman Bates' peeping before murdering Marion Crane. I'm not saying I didn't laugh, I'm saying that I'm the a--hole in the letter jacket for laughing. It's funny in the same way as beating that creepy D&D kid in the moon boots is funny, rendering comparisons to Todd Solondz's incisive teen comedies unfair and wide of the mark. I don't even have the energy to rail against the ways that blacks and Hispanics are parsed in the picture as, respectively, soul-infusion and intimidation. The best line in Napoleon Dynamite is the come-on ("I caught you a delicious bass"), and it's met with a chorus of jeering approval, mine included, while the best lines in Dodgeball ("Let the schadenfreude commence!") are met with general silence, save the braying, honking laughter of a heretofore silent minority massing to overthrow the small-minded dean and the oppressor Alphas.
Rating: ***1/2 [3.5 out of 4]
How refreshing is it to see a movie where you're desperately searching for the right words to describe it to your friends so they'll rush out to see it immediately? Instantly, you know you haven't done the film justice and rely on the old adage of "trust me" before pushing them towards the box office to say the words "Napoleon Dynamite." The best way I've found to pitch the film is to imagine an out-there cartoon, something you'd find on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim or the internet's HomestarRunner.com, and watching it spring to live-action on the big screen.
The setting: Preston, Idaho
His name: Napoleon Dynamite
Napoleon (Jon Heder in an inspired performance) is your garden variety geekboy at school. Seemingly your sympathetic type, you may find yourself taking a little time warming up to him, as he's hardly the friendliest and quite pushy at times. His homelife consists of a 32-year old brother named Kip (Aaron Ruell) who spends all his time in internet chatrooms and a grandma (Sandy Martin) who likes to go off-roading ATV-style.
Napoleon's life consists of a string of events that any of us growing up in high school can relate to; especially the geeks. A school dance is coming up and Napoleon has no one to take. Since girls relate to what you can do, Napoleon takes a class from a television karate guru (Diedrich Bader, dead-on hilarious here.) A new kid, Pedro (Efren Ramirez) comes to school and the two outsiders immediately bond, giving Napoleon an official sidekick not unlike The Lone Ranger or Don Quixote. There's the bashful girl at school (Tina Majorino) who catches the eye of both of them and has her own bizarre talents in the photographic arts. When grandma is taken out of commission by a particularly high dune, Uncle Rico (a terrific Jon Gries, aka "Lazlo Hollyfeld") shows up to take care of the boys. (Yes, even 32-year old Kip.)
Just about every character in Napoleon is endearing; even the ones we're clearly not supposed to like. Uncle Rico is a selfish pyramid schemer who quickly ropes the hapless Kip as his own sidekick. He's rude to Napoleon, who never misses an opportunity to lash back at the loser who still makes videos of his once precious throwing arm. And we just love to watch Rico and all his stilted lothario attempts on his sale calls. We can't help it.
Napoleon himself not only become a comic cliche on first sight with his squinty, stiff look and catch phrase mini-tantrums but is a friend-in-true, willing to become the sidekick himself when Pedro needs him. Whether it's teaching his Slowpoke Gonzales the ways of the woman or spearheading his school campaign for office, Napoleon's final sacrifice is crazily funny and remarkably touching. Trust me, by film's end you'll be hearing the words "vote for Pedro" in your head, wishing that he was up for the Democratic ticket in '04.
For the first time maybe ever, I find myself at a loss of words. Normally I will prevent myself from digging too deep in a review when it comes to plot twists and surprise endings, but this film doesn't have that. It is one great big surprise and a twist for 90 minutes on any other film we could possibly buy a ticket for. It's a coming-of-age story for everyone, asking all of us to grow in our appreciation for offbeat humor. Napoleon Dynamite is one of the funniest films you'll see this year. When it's over you may agree with the cartoon comparison and still not be able to describe it. You may find yourself searching for a comic strip or dialing around Adult Swim since out there these characters must be getting drawn somewhere. Trust me though, they can't be drawn better than by writer/director Jared Hess and his co-writer (and spouse) Jerusha Hess. I don't know what else to say. This review can't even begin to do Napoleon Dynamite justice.
Rating: ** 1/2 [2.5 out of 4]
There isn't much Napoleonic grandeur in this Idaho-set high school comedy, which in spite of its most condescending instincts, does have its moments. It helps to approach this debut feature and Sundance hit in the context of being shot on a small-town dime.
When we watch geeky Napoleon (Jon Heder) get shocked by a so-called time machine (mostly metal, batteries and headwear), one does have to concede an attitude often missing from pricier screen endeavors. Yet husband-wife team (Jared and Jerusha Hess) apparently have no love in their hearts for the no-hopes they've created. Napoleon is socially maladroit and is a constant pummeling target for standard-issue jocks. His uncle (a funny Jon Gries) is a jock wannabe, convinced he should have been an NFL quarterback instead of a salesman of plastic dishes. Meanwhile, Napoleon's pal Pedro (Efren Ramirez) is in over his head running for class president against a vapid school queen (Haylie Duff, Hilary's sister).).
The Hesses, who are only in their mid-20s, know how to set up gags and even capitalize on them. But their opening salvo seems outrageous just for the sake of it. In Fourth of July terms, its pop is less dynamite than firecracker.