It doesn’t matter one bit what any reviewer over the age of 18 has to say about this movie. By the looks of it, most didn’t appreciate it. They bitch that it’s derivative of other “quirky” teen comedies like Rushmore or Welcome to the Dollhouse. They think it’s mean-spirited or plotless or manipulative. If you’re in an analytical mood, any of these criticisms may hold water. But if you’re a teenager, still firmly planted amid the cruel jungle of adolescent politics and perfectly capable of laughing at someone who’s been hit in the face with a bloody minute-steak while riding a bicycle, you will never forget Napoleon Dynamite.
Writer-director Jared Hess has crafted a knowing, slightly subversive morality tale that is not striving for lofty cinematic heights. He goes right for the gut. When he’s not busy making us laugh at the dorks in the film performing various acts of dorkiness, he’s making us feel strangely triumphant when said dorks eke out a little happiness despite their basement-dwelling social status.
The other thing about Napoleon Dynamite that the overly attentive critic may miss is just how brilliant and mesmerizing the work of Jon Heder is in the film. He plays the lanky, puffy-haired, moon-boot-wearing, tetherball-playing title character with such dead-on realism it would be better to describe his acting in the film as a demonic possession rather than a “performance.” We’ve all seen how Hollywood does “dorks.” They’re all computer geeks with high-pitched squeals and greasy hair who pick their noses when talking to the most popular girl in school. Heder does a dork that is so impossibly close to the dorks I knew in high school, and in fact to the dork I was in high school, that it lends a tension and warmth to a genre of film not usually noted for such realism. Even if the film were not as funny or touching as it is, I would still recommend it highly for this performance alone.
The film is set in a small town in Idaho. Napoleon lives with his 31-year-old effeminate, unemployed, chat-room-surfing brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) and his llama-loving, ATV-riding grandmother in a house loaded with just enough ’70s and early ’80s kitsch to jam a Salvation Army store. It’s all shag carpet and avocado green and macramé for this family. When Granny has an accident, Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to stay with the “boys” to keep an eye on things. Uncle Rico is a relic from the early ’80s, with his polyester sportswear and bad toupee and conversion van. He’s so obsessed with his failures as a high school quarterback so long ago that he tries to undo the past by videotaping himself throwing footballs to nonexistent receivers. Like the rest of the film, Uncle Rico is both pathetic and funny. He’s also the deliverer of that aforementioned minute steak to Napoleon’s mug.
While Uncle Rico is taking charge, putting himself and Kip to work in an herbal bust-enhancing business, Napoleon makes a new friend in Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a Hispanic dork who rivals Napoleon in his squinting, dazed facade. Both are diligently trying to hook up dates for a dance when Pedro decides he’d like to run for school president. Brave man. The assembly where Pedro makes his final push for the job is the climax to a film that kids, and adults who remember, will take to their hearts. I feel sorry for those who don’t get the joke, and the lessons, from this film.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.