Napoleon Dynamite (2005 Film Review)


March 7, 2005

Now here's my problem. I don't like Napoleon Dynamite. I don't think it's a very good movie, nor do I think it's a very effective teen comedy. This is one of those movies you enjoy if you can identify with the main characters, but its humor seems to come from a certain meanness, but without the insights that comedy requires.

Napoleon is a nerdish teenager whose personality is a mixture of aloofness and indifference. In other words, a cranky, unpopular teenager, an antisocial one at that. He makes no effort to be liked, and if he enjoys anthing in life, it's revelling in his unpopularity.

I'm quite worn down by such personality types, because there are far too many of these souls in Minneapolis. I don't like that Comic Book Guy arrogance one damned bit; it permeates this city like a flu virus. Whoever coined the phrase "Minnesota Nice" was either deluded or a huckster.

This explains, to a great extent, why I'm not enamored of Napoleon Dynamite. Everyone in this movie just seems to shuffle along in a half-asleep daze. For some, it may be their idea of acting cool, but for me it just looks like Ritalin abuse. Jimi Hendrix was right: there ain't no life nowhere.

This movie is the creation of Jared and Jershua Hess, a husband-and-wife writing team who filmed it during their studies at BYU. Their Mormon background seems to infest the feeling and mood of this picture; it has something of a Ned Flanders quality to it, a bland plainness amidst its sincerity.

Everything just feels detached. Why can't there be any physical contact between anyone? What are we afraid of? Each character in the story - Napoleon, brother Kip, Uncle Rico, exchange student Pedro, arty girl Deb - exists in an impenetrable personal space. The end result is less a movie about teenagers than a movie about people who try to look like teenagers.

This kind of ironic detachment is fairly common today, in commercials and television shows, and in movies like Garden State. I think our generation uses irony as a way of avoiding real connections with one another. I believe it's wrong, and I fear we're missing out on the marrow of life. That's just the aging hippie in me.

There are some funny moments, and a couple jokes that I enjoyed, but for the most part, these represented lost opportunities. At one point, Pedro decides to run for class president, but his unpopularity makes it a losing cause. But it sets up the funniest gag in the picture. Napoleon builds recruits by going to harassed nerds and saying, "Pedro asks for your protection." The next time the big jock (apparantly there's only one in this school) taunts the boy, Pedro's bigger cousins drive up in their convertable with mean eyes.

What a great opportunity - a nerd mafia! I laughed my head off. Then the whole idea is dropped and never mentioned again. Huh? This sort of thing happens more than it should. Napoleon Dynamite almost feels like a pilot episode instead of a movie, and I actually think it would work as a television show.

I really don't know what else to think. As a story about high school and teenage years, Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse is far better, coming from a genuine sense of passion. You could point to the characters in that film and say, "I know her. That's me." Napoleon Dynamite is a cartoon, a collection of the mean and inept and dull. It doesn't even come close.

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