Napoleon Dynamite Review
Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) is a gangly, ginger-haired high school nerd who lives with his grandmother (Sandy Martin) and her pet llama in a strange town in Idaho. Time has stood still in this town since the 1980s and the citizens still wear eighties clothes, drive eighties cars, sport mullets and dance to Cyndi Lauper. They have the internet but they access it on eighties microcomputers.
Napoleon is a squinting, scowling misfit who's surpassed in geekiness only by his older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), a thirty-two-year-old whose life revolves around his online girlfriend. After their grandmother is hospitalised in a dirtbiking accident, the brothers are taken care of by their macho Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a failed football player turned entrepeneur. Other people in Napoleon's life include Pedro (Efren Ramirez), a good-natured Mexican kid he grudgingly befriends, Summer (Haylie Duff, Hilary's sister), the spoiled, shallow sexpot Pedro swoons over and Deb (Tina Majorino, the little girl from Waterworld!), a shy girl who may have eyes for Napoleon.
At first, Napoleon Dynamite doesn't seem to have a story to tell, it's just a series of unrelated gags featuring weirdos in a Twilight Zone version of the American Midwest. Some of these skits are just odd, the scenes with the llama for example, others are funny - the fate of the farmer's cow - and some are side-splittingly hilarious like the one in the world's worst martial arts school (be sure to read the signs on the wall). The humour in this film reminded me of Mike Judge's work, particularly Beavis And Butt-head, which also mixed cheap laughs with smart, stinging satire on Middle American life. Judge used his obnoxious duo to poke fun at the way regular Americans tried to deal with them and Napoleon Dynamite's co-writer/director Jared Hess does something similar here. The joke isn't that Napoleon is a bed-wetter but that his patronising neighbour, on hearing that, orders her mortified daughter to go to the prom with him.
While Beavis and Butt-head were always gross caricatures, Hess likes these nerds and although we may initially recoil from them and laugh at them, Napoleon and his brother slowly, quietly develop three-dimensional personalities and end up as people we actually feel affection towards. That the film accomplishes this without compromising and softening the characters is a little amazing. Napoleon Dynamite is the same nerd at the end of the film that he is at the beginning - we just know him better and we've met a lot of characters more awful than he is. Underneath the big laughs, there's a tremendous subtlety in the writing. A plot does eventually emerge, again slowly and quietly, and the film ends on a note which might seem at odds with the way it began but somehow works perfectly.
This is a wonderful film. Taken purely as a comedy, it's one of the year's funniest, with as many laughs as Dodgeball and Starsky And Hutch, but it also works as a sly satire and as an affectionate character study not a million miles from The Station Agent. Anyone who remembers suburban America in the eighties will enjoy it on an extra level since it recreates the time and place startlingly well. Its offbeat quality will inevitably leave some people cold but others will cherish it and millions already have. On its summer release in America, strong word of mouth led to it breaking out of the arthouse ghetto and grossing $40 million, a hundred times its production costs. Go and find out why.