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
(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
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.