One of the biggest hits at this year’s Sundance festival was Napoleon Dynamite, a low-budget no-name comedy set in a small Idaho town. The first feature from the husband and wife team of Jared and Jerusha Hess, both of whom are in their early 20s, this film wears its lo-fi amateurism on its sleeve while delivering a hodge-podge of characters, situations and jokes that have worked in other, better films.
To the credit of the Sundance jury (and the audience award voters), Napoleon Dynamite didn’t win any prizes. Not having attended the festival, I’m wondering if a lot of the hype was generated by Hollywood acquisitions people who saw an audience-friendly hit, a familiar genre film that doesn’t have anything remotely resembling an “edge.” It’s a clunky, family sitcom of a movie, one that seeks our affection like an anxious puppy.
Okay, it’s not that bad. The Hesses have seen the recent films (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Rushmore, About a Boy, Election, and even Gummo) and with Napoleon Dynamite, they’ve assembled the bits and pieces of movies about high school losers that will work in one happy, smiling package. So, we’ve got a truculent, universally despised geek protagonist (shout-out to Dollhouse) with an absurd streak of megalomania (Rushmore) to match his name, who gets hip to black music and risks public humiliation at a school assembly (About a Boy and Dollhouse), and who supports a friend’s run for school president against the class bitch (Election). And the whole thing is set in the middle of a town of hopelessly marginalized, freakish people who seem to exist on a different planet from the America presented in our media culture (Gummo).
Even the cute name they’ve given their protagonist is borrowed. After an Internet movie writer reported that Elvis Costello had used that jokey moniker on his 1986 album Blood and Chocolate, the filmmakers responded that they’d taken the name from a different person they’d met calling himself “Napoleon Dynamite.” Right.
Actually, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pastiche: Originality is a modernist myth. Musicians from Hank Williams and Bob Dylan to Prince and Beck have appropriated and synthesized a broad range of older song styles and created fresh-sounding hits. The comedies, histories and melodramas of Shakespeare–that patron saint of world literature–were ripped off from older texts and reformulated to suit his audiences’ tastes. Going back even further–perhaps 2,300 years ago–the author of Ecclesiastes wearily wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
But it’s also true that, as Stravinsky memorably put it, bad artists borrow and great artists steal. The author of King Lear is a great artist. The authors of Napoleon Dynamite are not.
What we have is a story about the titular high school geek, played by the unheralded but evidently talented Jon Heder as a curly haired, high school senior who wears print T-shirts with animals and helicopters on them, trousers pulled high on his waist and vintage 1980s moonboots. A reject in every way, he’s given to telling outlandish tales about his exploits being a ninja and hunting wolverines, and drawing painfully amateurish pictures in his outmoded 1980s Trapper Keeper school binder.
Napoleon lives with his meek older brother Kip, another caricature of a 1980s geek with a biology teacher mustache and white socks pulled up his bare calves. Their grandmother, a rat-tailed extreme sports enthusiast, cares for them, but she takes off early in the film–never to return–after telling her charges to feed themselves with kay-suh-dill-uhs.
The film’s story involves the will to power of these overmatched rejects and their friends–who will come to include a gentle Mexican classmate named Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and sweet Deb (Tina Majorino), the nerdette next door who wears her ponytail off the side of her head. Then there’s Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), an older, self-regarding loser who obsesses over his vanished, allegedly glorious youth, which came to an end in 1982. (Although the film’s production design is a riot of early 1980s details, the use of an Internet chat room indicates that the film is set in the present.)
The most grating device is the film’s complacent reliance on blackness injections to bring the white nerds into social acceptance. One geek is salvaged from the ruins of pallid whiteness by the arrival of a funky black woman from the ghetto (don’t ask) while Napoleon finds his salvation in a thrift store hip-hop dance instructional video. But, it goes without saying: there are no meaningful black characters in this film.
Admittedly, there are some genuinely funny scenes in Napoleon Dynamite, but most of them are quick slapstick bits early on, before the filmmakers’ dearth of ideas becomes painfully evident. Still, to the filmmakers’ credit–and Heder’s–there’s also a very enjoyable, if utterly implausible, grand finale to the film, the details of which will not be divulged here.
Jon Heder’s performance as young Napoleon is the best reason to see the film. Squinting behind thick glasses, Heder never looks directly at anyone, while speaking with a preposterous level of self-assurance. Although Heder doesn’t open himself up to others or to the camera in any meaningful way, his consistent obliviousness achieves comic effects through blind determination. Still, his physicality–like so much else in the film–is also borrowed, for Heather Matarazzo used a similar petulant squint to much more subtle effect in Welcome to the Dollhouse.
Although we should give Jared and Jerusha Hess some credit, for they are very young, I just wish they’d taken more risks rather than settling for tried and true jokes at the expense of losers in yesterday’s tacky clothes. Furthermore, the Hesses ought to be young enough to remember how truly alienating and terrifying high school is for the kids who don’t fit in. I don’t know if the Hesses were cool or if they were nerds, but they’re too young to be so eager to revisit high school as a place where a nerd can win.