Posted by Aaron West, 6/2/04
Directed by Jared Hess
Starring Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, Jon Gries, Aaron Ruell
Running Time: 86 minutes
Film trends are sometimes confounding. We're currently in the midst of a teenage comedy cycle, while simultaneously an independent film resurgence is also on the rise. Surprisingly the two haven't really met. Sure, there have been a few teenage Indies in recent years, but their themes have been darker, usually singing the tune of angst and rebellion (Igby Goes Down, Donnie Darko), and the humor has been accidental for the most part. This makes sense once you consider the successful teen comedy formula: popular kids, witty catch phrases, buxom, beautiful women. All of these attributes would turn the typical indie audience sour. Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately), Napoleon Dynamite has crossed that bridge in typical indie fashion by becoming the antithesis of the formulaic Hollywood production.
Our protagonist, Mr. Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) himself, isn't your typical high school kid. He wears his hair like John Shaft, his glasses like Billy Holly, and his wardrobe would fit perfectly in Screech's closet. He may not seem to have a lot of direction, but he has plenty of skills, such as nunchucks, tetherball, sketching and ripping bike jumps. People don't seem to understand Napoleon too well at school, save for his best friend Pedro, who is planning a run for Student Body President. He lives with his brother Kip, who spends his days scamming women in internet chatrooms, and his uncle Rico, who yearns to return to his glory second-string quarterback days of 1982.
The characters are what make Napoleon such a joy to watch. Their incognizant goofiness endears the audience, while their cliche-ridden actions and antiquated dialog make them a riot. Next to Napoleon, the strongest character is his Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) , who eats nothing but steak, videotapes himself throwing footballs, and sneaks quick peeks at his muscles when he thinks nobody's looking. He's also a businessman, porting his tupperware from door-to-door, using his charm and to induce lonely housewives to take in his wares. Napoleon's brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) is the weakest character of the bunch, but he still has his moments as he modifies himself to be more appealing to his cybermate LaFawnduh. Pedro's (Efren Ramirez) cool restraint and broken English makes him the perfect straight man, who surprises us with effective, yet odd lines such as "I will build her a cake." The characters are mostly flat, with little evolution throughout the course of the film, but their excessive quirkiness ensures that we don't lose affection for them.
What sets Napoleon Dynamite apart from other teenage comedies is how it explores the less glamorous aspects, the underbelly, of high school life. The main characters live in a run-down house, in the middle of nowhere, get around courtesy of Uncle Rico's rust colored Dodge Van, while wearing secondhand Walmart wardrobes. The character quirks ease us through the barren landscape as we witness the destitute life through the eyes and perception of those who are living it.
Napoleon Dynamite cannot be judged like other flicks, even by indie standards. In addition to the flat characters, there is no tight or guided narrative. These aren't goal oriented characters, thus they are subject to chance and like the audience, they seem to be watching their life from afar, powerless to alter it. Again, Dynamite can be forgiven these flaws, if you can even call them flaws, because it doesn't aspire to be cohesive and wouldn't be successful as a comedy if it were. It has no pretensions whatsoever for being high art. In fact, it's quite the opposite, but it's highly satirical nature keeps it from being brainless either.
Dynamite is set during the modern day, but we only know that due to the presence of the internet. The set design, costumes, music, and just about every other mise-en-scene element owes itself to the late-70s and eighties, at their worst moments. This makes the already preposterous characters seem even more backwards, as they are living a good decade or two behind everyone else, yet are completely unaware.
Napoleon Dynamite is hardly a perfect movie, but it's one of the more memorable offerings of the year, exactly the type of film that keeps indie filmmakers on the map. I expect its square vernacular with plenty of "dang"s and "shuck"s to be echoed in the high school halls and the office water cooler alike this year, as it is the strongest contender for the indie cult classic right now.
Vote for Pedro.