Napoleon Dynamite

November 11th, 2004 Film, Film Reviews, Personalities, Xpress

Directed by Jared Hess

Starring John Heder, Jon Gries, Aaron Ruell, Efren Ramirez.

When it was just a TV show and not a Pay TV channel (circa 1987), MTV had these great little stations idents (produced in the US) before and after commercial breaks. One was of someone making a sandwich in the shape of the MTV logo with the sounds of a cafeteria in the background.

The opening titles to Napoleon Dynamite feature the cast and crew’s names made in the shape of various foodstuffs. Coincidence? Maybe not when you realise Napoleon Dynamite is an MTV-funded production.

That should give away the intended tone of the film, but discussion boards across the Internet lit up with the ‘what was the point’ vs. ‘best movie ever’ debate following the film’s US release. Released on the arthouse circuit in America, as is it across Australia this week, some moviegoers expected more depth.

‘That’s what’s funny about it, says John Heder talking to Xpress about his role as the titular nerd, ‘and you’re right, this is an independent film, a lot of arthouse cinemas are showing it so people say ‘what’s so meaningful about this?’

‘But you can tell the people of Australia they don’t have to look that deep; what you see is what you get. This is a character [director] Jared loved and wanted to bring to the screen to give you a taste of what this kid’s life is like.

‘I think a lot of people can relate to the lead character and if they can’t, then hopefully they’ll just find the movie funny.’

So when you’re George Clooney and you’re cast as the suave leader of a bunch of equally hunky master casino thieves or you’re Tom Cruise playing a disheveled war hero finding honour among a Samurai clan, it must be pretty good on your ego — isn’t it a bit insulting when they cast you as a lanky goofball with Coke bottle glasses and curly red hair?

‘I’m not a hunk, I’m not a babe magnet,’ Heder says, ‘so they give me something to wear the like moon boots and the glasses and I look a lot dorkier.’ So you’re just like Napoleon, Xpress asks gently, wondering if we’ll be hung up on?

‘In some things. I was awkward when I was at high school. I wasn’t as clueless as he is, but I was pretty nervous around women. I got a lot of the character from my younger brother, because Napoleon’s basically a big younger brother. He’s the kind of kid who’s basically pissed at everything all the time for no reason.’

Little of what you hear about Napoleon Dynamite (even if you’ve seen a trailer) prepares you for it. Because it’s being shown in arthouse cinemas, you expect a minor gem like Raising Victor Vargas or Roger Dodger. If it was being shown in your suburban cineplex, you’d expect a small-scale teen comedy — better thought out than Eurotrip or American Pie but containing at least some tits and fart jokes.

Tonally, Napoleon Dynamite sits somewhere in between. Too smart for a mainstream teen comedy and too light for an indie-style satirical statement, it’ll please many viewers and disappoint just as many, but it’s neither extreme nor impactful enough in any aspect to make you love or hate it.

The whole film is distinctly broken into something of a collection of skits from Napoleon’s life. Indeed, for the first half hour or so, little happens except comic snapshots.

We learn that he lives with his even nerdier (if that’s possible) older brother Kip in a rural US area populated by similarly simple folk who speak uneasily and slowly, and to whom life gives little cause for extremes of emotional expression.

When the boys’ grandmother — who takes care of them — is hurt in a quad bike accident, their Uncle Rico comes to live with them, a creature just as bizarre as Napoleon and Kip who obsesses about the football stardom he never had and is convinced they can make money selling what appears to be bootleg Tupperware.

Napoleon, meanwhile, befriends the new Mexican kid at school, embarks on an uneasy romance with shy and dorky Deb, and tries to get through high school with his dignity intact despite having no style or discernible talents.

Unlike most teen angst comedies lifted from the Ugly Duckling mythology where the hero or heroine has some fabulously redeeming feature that everyone ends up loving them for, Napoleon is more like Dawn from Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse.

In both cases, the filmmakers appear to simply want to show us the agonising life of an outcast kid and the cruelty the high school-aged world can bear when you have no distinguishing talents.

The exception in Napoleon Dynamite, however, is that the dryness of the delivery (both of the character’s dialogue and the filmmaking style) makes it very funny. It’s hard to really like Napoleon or see any of his depth apart from the couple of quirks that make you laugh, and the film is much the same.

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