July 2004
c o n t e n t s

Remembrance Through Memorable Statements: America, in Mourning, Looks at the Death of Three Icons

Linklater, Hawke and Delpy Still Have Magic Chemistry

Porter's Great Music Remembered in
De-Loving Biopic

Ferrell Goes All Out to Bring You the News

The Emperor Has No Clothes: 'Napoleon Dynamite' Not Even an Indie Firecracker

This Sequel's Spidey Senses are Tingling
  The filmmaking philosophy seems to be that if a film is about people acting stupid, it’s automatically funny...  
movie reivews
Film-related stories
film story

The Emperor Has No Clothes
‘Napoleon Dynamite’ Not Even an Indie Firecracker
by Jeremy Mathews

“Napoleon Dynamite”
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Directed by Jared Hess
Written by Jared and Jerusha Hess
Produced by Jeremy Coon, Sean Covel and Chris Wyatt
Starring Jon Heder, Jon Gries, Efren Ramirez, Aaron Ruell, Tina Majorino, Haylie Duff, Ellen Dubin, Emily Kennard and Diedrich Bader

Rated PG

(out of four)

  If you find this facial expression amusing, you may enjoy this movie.
  Enfren Ramirez plays a friend of Napoleon who becomes a new student at the high school and decides to run for president.
  This is a PG-rated movie, so Napoleon isn't going to blow that sort of load. Pervert.

Jokes generally have more than one component—in the very least a setup that makes the punchline funny. Comedic films since the dawn of cinema have even gone through the effort of creating characters who add more humor to the messy situations that they find themselves in. “Napoleon Dynamite” is the cinematic equivalent of listening to someone say “…to get to the other side” for 90 minutes.

Jared Hess’s movie attempts to chronicle the lazy days of a rural Idaho high school student and his surrounding friends and family—all maladjusted, awkward people. None of them have anything interesting or funny to say, which is perhaps supposed to be the joke, but it doesn’t turn out to be a very rewarding one after suffering through a film’s worth of random stupidity that isn’t even funny through its randomness. The filmmaking philosophy seems to be that if a film is about people acting stupid, it’s automatically funny, and hence there’s no point in building a gag or creating any visuals that are mildly interesting to look at.

There are no straight men to react to the alleged comedy that is the town’s inept misadventures. The tall, ‘fro-ridden Napoleon (Jon Heder) is unreasonably annoyed at the people with whom he lives and goes to school. His simpleton brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), says things that annoy him more and tries to find love in chat rooms on the Internet. Napoleon’s uncle Rico (John Gries), who arrives after Napoleon’s grandmother’s dune buggy accident, is stuck in the past with his decades-old high-school football glory of 1982.

The hero’s only friend is a new kid in school named Pedro (Enfren Ramirez), the school’s sole Latino who is apparently too idiotic to realize that his friend isn’t worth getting to know. Meanwhile, Napoleon has a crush on Deb (Tina Majorino), whom he first charms by insulting the plastic-braid key chains she’s selling door-to-door.

While the movie takes place in the present, as made clear in the Internet references, the fashions and other aspects are a couple decades out of date, making its most interesting feature its documentation of a people devoid of modern fashion, despite having easy access to it.

These characters and the ideas they represent are reflections of lazy screenwriting. It lacks any effort to make a point, and the jokes are simply a compilation of things that people think would be hilarious before they think them through.

“Napoleon Dynamite” is one bad, obvious joke after another, Scotch-taped together without any sense of structure or story. Those last two elements wouldn’t really matter if the movie were funny, but alas the pratfalls and gags are less sophisticated than when the boy stepped on the gardener’s hose in the first film comedy. What’s worse is that, gags aside, the main character merely repeats the exact same joke through the whole film.

In the title role, Heder’s performance ranges from annoyed to exhaustedly irritated. “Shut up” and “oh, my gosh!” he constantly drones in a forced, lowered voice, between exasperated sighs. This in itself is meant to account for half of the film’s laughs, and if it were at any point worthy of a chuckle (it isn’t), it certainly doesn’t become funnier an hour in. Any of Napoleon’s alleged life goals or aims at romance are undercut because everything he says sounds like it’s programmed into his brain with an annoying speech pattern. His attitude is meant to be inspirational and a sign of defiance in the face of high school societal norms, but Napoleon’s hatred comes off as irrational, bordering on sociopathic, and I say this as someone who was never close to the people he rallies against.

The great 1999 TV show “Freaks and Geeks,” also about awkward kids in high school, recently came out on DVD, there’s a sharp contrast in the treatment of its characters and those in “Napoleon Dynamite.” In the series, the characters have personalities; they want to be themselves, they don’t want to be ridiculed. While the characters have their victories, they aren’t forced nonsense and we can sympathize with them when their dreams fall apart. We laugh at their accurately observed confusion in an insane world. Napoleon is, quite simply, an unlikable jerk who gets a fairy tale ending that is supposed to be uplifting, but inadvertently shows that even if he has friends, he won’t be friendly.

Watching the film at Sundance, I sat baffled—laughing only once at a joke about a time machine purchased on Ebay—with a joyous audience that must have been full of comedy- and sleep-deprived moviegoers or friends of the director. Luckily, I wasn’t the sole detractor. Many who attacked “Napoleon Dynamite” when it played then remarked that Hess was condescending to and mocking his characters. Since the story was inspired by the writer/director’s own life, many have used this background to defend the film, saying that the city folks reviewing it simply don’t understand regional comedy. The truth is that if it were funny to laugh at stupid characters demonstrating how stupid they are, “Napoleon Dynamite” still lacks any actual characters.

top of page

RED Magazine is no longer a publication of The Daily Utah Chronicle. RED used to be published every Thursday in Salt Lake City, Utah. Now it can only be found here, online. Copyrighted material remains the property of the original owner. Web Site Copyright 2004.