The International Writers Magazine
:DVD Review

Napoleon Dynamite
Dan Schneider

Jared Hess’s cult classic from 2004, Napoleon Dynamite, immediately drew me back to such films as Rushmore, Election, and Welcome To The Dollhouse- films that deal with high school life in comic ways. Yet, of those films, Napoleon Dynamite is probably the most off the wall.

The film is set in director Hess’s hometown of Preston, Idaho, in the southeastern corner of the state, not far from the Great Salt Lake. It is not a parody, but an absurdist tale, as none of the characters are in the least bit realistic. Napoleon Dynamite is the lead character’s name (and yes, it sounds like the name of a loser from a bad punk rock band), and he is played by newcomer Jon Heder- a tall, red afro’d, four-eyed geek who is a not too good liar. He lives with his grandmother (Sandy Martin) and websurfing, geeky older brother Kipling (Aaron Ruell), until grandma wipes out in an ATV accident on sand dunes. Then, their Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) comes to live with the boys. Rico is a bad Tupperware salesman who lives out of his aging van, and still wishes it was 1982, when he was a backup high school quarterback. He feels his coach’s decision not to put him into the game denied him a shot at the NFL. Napoleon’s school life is not much better. He’s bullied by kids his age and younger, and makes only two friends- a Mexican kid named Pedro Sanchez (Efren Ramirez), who’s as passionless as his name is generic, but who has a sweet bicycle, can work up the courage to talk to girls, and has an real mustache, and a cute, but weird brunet girl named Deb (Tina Majorino), who attempts to run her own door-to-door Glamour Shots business.

That’s all you really need to know of the characters, for there really is no plot. Things just happen to the characters in a series of de facto blackout sketches. But, boy, are they hilarious. Rico tries to hit on a martial arts expert’s butch blond wife, and suffers the consequences, Kip meets a black girl from Detroit online, named LaFawnduh Lucas (Shondrella Avery), and after she visits him, by film’s end (after the credits) ends up marrying her. Pedro asks out the blond bombshell who rules the school, Summer Wheatly (Haylie Duff), only to end up running against her for school president. He also asks out Deb, who accepts - much to Napoleon’s consternation. Napoleon then asks out a girl whose mother is being wooed by Uncle Rico. And on it goes, until the day of the presidential debate between Summer and Pedro. On Napoleon’s advice Pedro promises the crows that if they vote for him he will fulfill their wildest dreams. Unfortunately, neither he nor Napoleon realized that the debate was to be followed by a candidate’s skit. After Summer and her supporters do a cheerleading number Napoleon does a funky dance that is actually quite good, to some soul music. Pedro seems destined to win the election, and Deb and Napoleon celebrate (sort of) by playing a lame game of tetherball. Fadeout, credits, and end with wedding scene- which was tacked on for the DVD.

There is no satire, nor lampooning- just an absurdist slice of life in the west. In a sense the film, in its pacing and humor, reminded me of a less snarky and curse-laden, live version of the film of the South Park tv cartoon. Especially ridiculous is the scene where Napoleon tries to use his uncle’s time machine (bought online, in an attempt to return to 1982), which requires strapping himself into a head piece, and a similar piece that goes near the genitals. Napoleon gets fried and enter Uncle Rico, to tell him he should’ve just asked him if it worked. It doesn’t, and in the next scene Napoleon and Rico are seen limping in a store, due to their frazzled gonads.

The characterization works because Napoleon is no mere wuss. He’s an ill-tempered brat, who snarkily disses those above and below him on the social spectrum. Especially funny are some scenes of him scrapping with Uncle Rico.

These traits lift the comedy above other teen comedies that, likewise, have jocks and pretty cheerleaders, geeks and a big school dance. This is no bildungsroman, just a slice of a bizarre, yet somehow still plausible life. Napoleon Dynamites abound in every school, and have so since the dawn of time, yet this one is not only an everynerd, but a specific one, and that lends the film some great moments- as when Napoleon tests spoilt milk for the source of its contamination, deals with stolid chicken farm owners, watches a cow shot as a schoolbus full of children shrieks in panic, or lies about hunting wolverines in Alaska, or his bow staff skills. In short, were he just a tad less oblivious, and could see how damned his existence is, he would likely end up pulling a Columbine-type massacre in Preston.

The film is well written by Hess and his wife Jerusha, and there is a making of featurette not for the film, but the addendum wedding after the credits. This seems wholly in keeping with the film. There is also a commentary with Hess and Heder, but little of note is said, save for the fact that we learn Heder is married in real life, and Majorino (Deb) is a hip hop dance instructor. The film, however, tells much more than other films with seemingly similar subjects because it does not try. What it shows, though, is really, really funny.
© Dan Schneider November 2005
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