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Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Hes out to prove hes got nothing to prove.

Directed by:

Jared Hess

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 82 minutes

US Certificate: PG UK Certificate: PG

Country: United States

Preston, Idaho, the present. After their tough grandmother (Sandy Martin) is injured in a dune-buggy accident, nerdy Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) and his even nerdier 32-year old brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) are left in the dubious care of Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a sleazy door-to-door salesman who is “living too much in ’82”. Almost by default, Napoleon meets and befriends new socially-excluded Mexican student Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and geeky amateur photographer Deb (Tina Majorino), and the odd trio manage, against all probability, to have something like a good time together at the school dance. So when hangdog Pedro decides to run in the election for school president against the popular Summer (Haylie Duff), Napoleon offers to help using all his special skills…

The debut feature of director Jared Hess (who co-wrote it with his wife Jerusha), ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ is a colourfully skew-eyed portrait of extreme misfits, retro kitsch and cultural cringe in rural America – but it is cursed with taking recognisable elements from other films that are better than it is. Like Todd Solondz’s ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse’ (1995), it shows the difficulties faced by school misfits – but without the same venom. Like Alexander Payne’s ‘Election’ (1999), it focusses on a contest for school president – but without the same political satire. And like Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor (2003), it shows the occasional superheroics of ordinary life – but without the same reflective intelligence. Still, the film must be admired for combining so many ideas into something like a unified whole – and it IS a lot better than the ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ franchise.

Its biggest problem (arguably a problem with all films in the ‘victorious geek’ genre) is its very mixed message. For ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ seems more content to demean and ridicule its übernerd protagonist than to engage our sympathies for him. We are never really invited ‘in’ to Napoleon’s world, but just left to gawp from the sidelines at his alien antics, for he is, from beginning to end, so consistently otherworldly and insulated from reality that whatever interior life he may have remains entirely inaccessible, making any kind of empathy or identification with him impossible. Looking at the world through bespectacled eyes that are almost completely shut, reacting to everything – good or bad – with the same pained expression, barely seeming even to register his own final moment of triumph, and spending most of his time talking about fantasy beasts and nunchaku skills, Napoleon seems to inhabit a world from which the viewer is forever excluded – which makes him far easier to laugh at than laugh with, despite the film’s pretensions to championing outsiders. Add to this the fact that Napoleon seems borderline retarded, and all the jokes at his expense might leave you feeling, upon reflection, more than a little uncomfortable – even if at the time they do seem very funny indeed.

What is touching, however, and perhaps the film’s central theme, is the strength, however strangely expressed, of the friendship between Napoleon, Deb and Pedro, and the different favours which the three do to support each other once they have gravitated together into a unit. This, more than the myriad of throwaway subplots involving ripoff time-machines, martial arts classes, tupperware, internet dating, hungry llamas and herbal breast enhancers, is what remains memorable about ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ – while the scene in which Napoleon finally achieves his heroic triumph is so miraculously unhinged that you really will be left believing that “all your wildest dreams will come true”.

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It's Got: Lots of people saying “dang”, “sweey” and “jeez”, the phrase “our underwater ally” applied to the loch Ness monster, a ham-eating llama called Tina, ‘Dance Grooves’ videos, magical ligers, chickens with “large talons”, egg juice, a perfect politician’s wig, performances without cinematic parallel from Jon Heder as Napoleon and the mighty Efren Ramirez as Pedro - and of course ‘Rex Kwon Do’.

It Needs: Not to ridicule its main character quite so much – it seems uncomfortably close to laughing at someone for being autistic, retarded, or just plain disturbed.

Alternatives:

'Election', 'Revenge of the Nerds', 'Welcome to the Dollhouse', American Splendor

Summary

A colourfully skew-eyed portrait of extreme misfits, retro kitsch and cultural cringe in rural America, with a main character who is truly unique.

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