Napoleon Dynamite, as played by Jon Heder, is perhaps the most pathetic individual you've ever seen in a film. That is until later in the same film when you meet his older brother Kip. And then his Uncle Rico. This then is the peculiar allure of "Napoleon Dynamite" as written and directed by Jared Hess. In a world of wildly diminished expectations it doesn't take much to be a hero.
Napoleon Dynamite -- and there is no suggestion that this is not his real name -- is the kind of guy who was born to be slammed into a high school locker for no apparent reason. Unless, of course, you count his big glasses, bigger teeth, bad blonde Ďfro and his uber-geek hobbies of sketching mythological creatures and playing tetherball by himself. When challenged, Napoleon can kick into a rough approximation of an alpha male, talking about his proficiency with nun-chucks, his totally sweet girlfriend who lives in another state and his summer spent hunting wolverines in Alaska. He can even verbally assault someone without uttering a single profanity. It's like watching a Mormon trying to cop a 'tude. But the film provides no one to look up to -- not the knobby kneed older brother who lives in online chat rooms, nor the uncle who is so desperate to live in the past that he buys a homemade time machine on Ebay. There's no teacher, student or parent with anything to emulate. I donít even recall most of these people having a name. Leaving it to Napoleon, a meek girl named Debbie and a laconic new Mexican student named Pedro to form a loose alliance in order to carve out a little niche of self-respect.
"Napoleon Dynamite" is a funny film. Often very funny. The laughs are unexpected until you start to figure out that the film aspires to be nothing more than idiosyncratic. One of the hot buzz films from the Sundance Film Festival, "Napoleon Dynamite" appears to have been specifically geared to the Sundance audience, famous for rewarding the aggressively quirky and not penalizing for twinges of smugness. While it laudably refuses to overplay the triumph of the nerd story arc, it still leans heavily on proven devices, including the assumption that white middle-class small town Idaho is inherently funny, and thus Mexicans will be inherently threatening. The film also borrows an off-brand Duff, Hillary's sister Hayley Duff to play a straight-up version of the popular high school blonde we can root against. There's even a sunny someone-for-everyone finale.
Still, props must be paid to Jon Heder for creating a singular character and delivering the goods in an audacious dance solo. Napoleon Dynamite isnít the most sympathetic hero. And on second thought, he's really not that pathetic after all. Even if we are laughing at him more than with him, I never for a moment worried that our man wasnít going to come out of this with his 'fro intact.
© 2004 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 05/04
U.S. - 2004