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Jared Hess’ “Napoleon Dynamite” has got to be one of the strangest and most original film I’ve seen in a long while. To say that the film has no actual plot would be wrong, because it does in fact have a beginning, middle, and end. And somewhere in-between, it even manages to inject conflict, romance, and enough ’80s vibe to make Adam Sandler jealous. Although set in the year 2003-2004 (according to a quick glimpse of the titular character’s school ID) the film seems to belong more in the ’80s, back when The Promise’s “When in Rome” ruled the music charts and the Backstreet Boys were still in diapers.
Jon Heder plays Napoleon, a high school loser with what can best be described as a “devil may care, because I certainly don’t” attitude. He’s not exactly a nerd, since he spends all his time doodling “ligers” — that is, a poorly drawn fantasy creature made up of a lion and tiger. Not that he’s anything close to a jock either, especially in those tight jeans, what looks like foam hiking boots, and drooping eyeglasses that seems to hide eyes trying to hold back heavy eyelids that makes Napoleon seem like he’s constantly sleepwalking. The boy is, in a word, strange. Mind you, not that he’d ever notice his strangeness, which is part of his charm, if that’s even the right word.
Napoleon’s world is rocked when his Grandma, who he lives with along with big brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), takes a tumble while joyriding in the desert on her ATV. Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), an ex-jock still daydreaming of his glory days, rides into town in his van to keep the house in order while Grandma is hospitalized. Uncle Rico, not the smartest fellow in the world, is looking to make some extra “mullah” and buy that time machine he’s been hunting for. You see, Uncle Rico wants nothing more than to time travel back to High School and finally, once and for all, win that State Championship football game, go pro, and meet his soulmate while soaking in a hot tub — in that order. Kip, meanwhile, is engaged in intense cyber romance.
Of course saying that Napoleon was “rocked” is a bit of a stretched. Nothing much gets to this guy. If a nuclear warhead dropped into his backyard, he’s liable to just stand there gazing stupidly at it. He’s not completely sympathetic, because that would be taking the easy way out. Instead, Napoleon is very much a weirdo, that outcast who doesn’t quite “get” that he’s an outcast, or care if he did. He’s picked on at school, Uncle Rico spreads rumors about him, and the new kid in school, a Mexican “kid” (although he looks to be in his ’20s, complete with a mustache he grew “in a few days”), wants to run for school President. Napoleon agrees to help since, after meeting accidentally in the hallways, they became “best friends”. And oh yeah, Napoleon thinks it would be sweeeet if Pedro (Efren Ramirez) won, since then Napoleon could be his “bodyguard or something”.
All of this sets the stage for some funny bits. To his credit, writer/director Hess seems content to let the film hit its stride crawling, which isn’t to say the movie is ever boring or poorly paced. If anything, the scenes are always just short or long enough to work. In fact, almost all of the film’s comedy gags work, including Napoleon’s romance with Deb (Tina Majorino), an equally strange girl who dabbles in glamour photography as a side job.
As the titular anti-hero, you couldn’t ask for anyone better than Jon Heder. The mannerisms — the way he walks, the way he talks, and even the way he seems to have trouble breathing — all goes into making Napoleon Dynamite one of the more unique characters in cinema. Is he weird? Most definitely. Is he “out there”? Yes, way out there, as in outer space. Even so, you can’t help but like the dweeb, especially since he seems to have no trouble liking himself.
The best phrase to describe “Napoleon Dynamite’s” comedy is deadpan humor. The film seems perfectly content to let the audience decide rather they want to laugh, snicker, or take pity on the characters in a given scene. There is no forced comedy here, not that Hess needs to take up such a loathsome stunt. The movie simply works as is. Jon Heder’s portrayal carries the film like a champ, with more than able assistance from the supporting cast. Jon Gries as the steak obsessed uncle, Tina Majorino as the odd Deb, and Aaron Ruell as the older brother all contribute immensely to our little wacky family of oddballs.
As with its comedy, the film has declared it unnecessary to define itself. The movie is heavily anachronistic, including a prom dance that only plays ’80s music, but a later musical number using one of those interchangeable boy bands of the late ’90s. The characters all wear clothes that seem to range from the ’60s to the ’80s, and most of the female characters are sporting hair straight out of the ’80s. Trying to guess just what kind of time warp the film is set in is almost as much fun as wondering how Napoleon got to be the way he is.
Then again, the best way to experience “Napoleon Dynamite” is just to accept it, accept Napoleon, and enjoy the ride. Also, the film features a long coda after the final credits has rolled. Stick around for a wedding scene that seems to keep going and going and going…
Jared Hess (director) / Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess (screenplay)
CAST: Jon Heder …. Napoleon Dynamite
Jon Gries …. Uncle Rico
Aaron Ruell …. Kip
Efren Ramirez …. Pedro
Diedrich Bader …. Rex
Tina Majorino …. Deb