ared 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
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
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