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A review of Napoleon Dynamite


Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder, center) with his uncle - Rico and brother Kip.
  • Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder, center) with his uncle Rico and brother Kip.

Napoleon Dynamite (PG)
Fox Searchlight

What quirk giveth, quirk can also take away. Just as many blockbusters bank on CGI effects, schmaltzy scores and raw star power, indie films, particularly the summer "feel goods," rely on goofy non sequiturs. That's Napoleon Dynamite in a nutshell: a harmless spawn of Sundance that could have been an excellent character piece had it not overindulged in its own idiosyncratic sensibility.

The film takes place in Preston, Idaho, a small town that enjoys modern blessings such as the Internet and yet mysteriously lags decades behind Western fashion standards. The film's protagonist is Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), a teenager whose mouth is forever agape and whose disposition hops between extreme dopiness and standard-issue adolescent indignation.

In Napoleon's world there are stupid questions -- like all of them. Asked about the animal he's sketching in class one day, Napoleon informs his friend that it's a "liger" a lion-tiger hybrid -- "it's probably my favorite animal" -- as if this were as obvious as night and day. Napoleon is unique in that he dodges many of the teen movie stereotypes. While he's body slammed into hallway lockers, he never internalizes his victimhood. He's certainly not as clever or sensitive as Rushmore's Max Fischer, nor is he as pathetic as the emotional carnage found in the films of Todd Solondz. But a dork he certainly is.

With seemingly bulletproof glasses and white-boy Afro, the quixotic Napoleon lives with his equally quixotic, do-nothing 32-year-old brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) and born-to-be-wild grandma (Sandy Martin). Oh, and then there's Lisa, the family's resident llama who subsists on pans of unidentified casseroles. Reasons for this arrangement are never explained. Instead, 24-year-old director Jared Hess, a Preston native himself, presents it as if it were not the least bit unusual.

If there's anything of a plot, it occurs when Napoleon befriends Pedro, a newly arrived Mexican who, without appearing much more than mildly awake, manages to make a bid for class president after being crudely rebuffed by his opponent, the school's reigning "it" girl. The two launch a campaign for class presidency that, like so much in Preston, seems motivated by boredom as much as anything else.

Back at home, Napoleon's Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) has returned home to watch over his two nephews after their grandmother is injured in a dune buggy mishap. Trapped in the year 1982, Rico is forever filming himself throwing footballs into the abyss. He still can't quite get over his high school coach's failure to give him a chance, and as a result he's now selling something like Tupperware door to door.

Because there's seemingly nothing else to do in Preston, Rico and Kip dive whole hog into a scheme to purchase a time machine over the Internet and return to 1982. Kip has also developed an online relationship with an African-American woman named LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery), who is presumed fabricated until she shows up on the bus and proceeds to transform him into an Eminem clone.

That two grown men would believe in a time machine, and that a black woman from Detroit would Greyhound it to Idaho for a gangly geek she met online ... well, it more than exceeds the weight limit of our disbelief. But worse than that it subverts the minimalist nuance of Napoleon's character by turning what is, in part, authentically bittersweet into a series of devolving cheap laughs.

At risk of completely pooping this party, it should be noted that the film is littered with hilarious bits and pieces, involving a self-defense class from hell, the hurling of a grapefruit, and a dance finale worthy of John Travolta, or at least Solid Gold. Napoleon Dynamite adds up to a few hard laughs and not much else. However, sometimes that's more than enough.

-- John Dicker

Kimball's Twin Peak

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