Five minutes into Napoleon Dynamite, and I’d already
had it. The slack-jawed main character, the dead-eyed supporting cast,
the monosyllabic dialogue, Jon Gries wearing seventies
porno-chic jumpsuits with fake cleavage sewn on and hair that looks
like it belongs to Erik Estrada circa “ChiPs”—all
add up to what seems like the longest Sprite commercial ever.
The title character (Heder) lives in Preston, Idaho,
with his grandmother (who’s into dune buggies) and his 31-year-old
unemployed brother, Kip (Ruell), who spends his time
chatting with his chat room girlfriend, LaFawnduh. Sporting a red ’fro
and soda bottle-glasses, Napoleon Dynamite ambles down
streets and hallways doing anything but living up to his name. Tall
and lanky, like one of those clowns on stilts, he hardly looks like
a “Napoleon.” Always peering out from half-closed eyes,
playing tetherball by himself, or standing in the middle of a room with
his mouth hanging open, he’s hardly dynamite, either. And yet,
he’s strangely confident, fully self-possessed as if he were in
on a joke that could never hope to make sense to the rest of the world.
When his grandmother is injured in a dune buggy accident, Napoleon’s
uncle (Gries—re: those outfits? My god.) moves in with them. Uncle
Rico is one of those entrepreneur-wannabes without capital or business
sense but a stubborn pipe dream of striking it rich. His plan of action?
Door-to-door sales. He recruits a reluctant Kip to sell plastic bowl
sets (kind of reminds you of a certain scheme that rhymes with “Flupperware,”
yeah?), and the expected hijinks proceed.
Meanwhile, Napoleon has become friends with a new student, Pedro (Ramirez,
giving Heder a run for his money in the sleepwalking department).
After his request to go to the school dance with cheerleader Summer
(Duff, giving the best, least mannered performance
in the film) is denied—she gives him a coy note with the word
“NO!” scrawled inside—Pedro decides to run against
her in the class presidential election. With the help of Napoleon and
Deb (Majorino), a mopey local girl who sells homemade
weave bracelets to save up money for college, Pedro mounts his campaign.
What follows is yet another the-geeks-will-inherit-the-earth story
whose stiffness is matched only by the characters on screen. Napoleon
Dynamite feels like a vaudeville routine put on by a group of sixth
graders. The players are smart enough to get the humor, just not observant
enough to understand the concept of nuance. Everyone speaks in an uninspired
somnambulistic style, as if they think they invented the notion of the
Teenage Wasteland. Heder’s Napoleon may bring to mind Bill Haverchuck
from TV’s “Freaks and Geeks,” except without Bill’s
emotional depth or the joy in Martin Starr’s
performance. “Freaks and Geeks” also cared for its characters.
I’m sure Napoleon’s director, Jared Hess
cares as much about his, but it doesn’t show. Napoleon Dynamite
acts like it’s a shrine to misfit culture, but the key ingredient
that’s missing is empathy. Hess seems more interested in fitting
as many non-sequiturs and sight gags into his film than in giving us
characters or a story that has any emotional bite to it. So the picture
limps along, not quite billing itself as a stoner comedy but definitely
targeting that audience. Thing is, stoner comedy, when done right, is
gold. It’s when the movie itself is as stoned as its audience
that a problem arises. And Napoleon Dynamite is the thousand-yard
stare in movie form.