The International Writers Magazine:DVD Review
Jared Hesss 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 Hesss 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 characters 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 afrod, 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 coachs
decision not to put him into the game denied him a shot at the NFL.
Napoleons school life is not much better. Hes bullied by
kids his age and younger, and makes only two friends- a Mexican kid
named Pedro Sanchez (Efren Ramirez), whos 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.
Thats 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 experts 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 films
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 Napoleons 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
Napoleons 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 candidates
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 uncles 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 shouldve just asked him if
it worked. It doesnt, 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. Hes
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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