Seething with teen-angst irritability and an obstinate blind ignorance to just how much of an outcast he is, Napoleon Dynamite may be the biggest dork in the history of high school movies.
Completely lacking in social graces, the lanky, slack-jawed, sleepy-eyed, bed-headed and shoulder-hunched titular anti-hero of this off-kilter comedy (played with unabashed geek gusto by newcomer Jon Heder) can't even manage to speak to a girl without putting his foot in his mouth. But it isn't nerves that bring him down -- it's nerve, as in "you've got a lot of nerve, pal."
"I see your drinking one-percent milk. Is that 'cause you think you're fat?" is his idea of an opening line to a very disinterested girl in the cafeteria of his lifelessly rural-edge-of-suburbia Idaho high school. "You're not. You could be drinking whole."
His unwieldy attempts at forging friendships aren't helped any by the fact that he's decked out in -- from bottom to top -- moon boots (on a perfectly clement fall day), parachute pants with zipper-pouch pockets (where he keeps leftover tater tots from hot lunch), a shrunken sky-blue T-shirt emblazoned with a silk screen of galloping horses, thick and heavy 1970s eyeglasses, and a shock of unruly red curls that he tries in vain to part with a comb.
"Napoleon Dynamite" captures, to hilarious extremes, all the uncomfortable-in-your-own-skin humiliation of teen dorkdom through a character seemingly oblivious to it all as he helps his one friend -- a new kid named Pedro (Efren Ramirez) whose Mexican background has ill-prepared him for life in an Idaho high school -- run for class president against the head cheerleader (Haylie Duff, big sister of Hilary "Lizzie McGuire" Duff).
But the plot is not the film's source of humor; it's the vivid awkwardness of its incidentals.
It's the fact that jocks routinely -- even absent-mindedly -- shove Napoleon into a locker every time they walk past him. It's the fact that, in his Dungeons-and-Dragons fantasy of life, Napoleon is convinced girls don't like him because "I don't have any skills" like bow hunting. Of course, he also claims, "This one gang wanted me to join because I'm pretty good with a long pike."
It's the fact that Napoleon lives with 1) an uncle (Jon Gries) psychotically obsessed with door-to-door get-rich-quick schemes and his own high school days as a failed quarterback, and 2) an arrogant wimp of a 30-ish brother (Aaron Ruell), who is an even bigger geek than Napoleon. And it's the fact that the brother fancies himself a ladies' man because he spends all day in internet dating rooms.
That detail of technology is an inexplicable anomaly since the story otherwise appears to take place in the 1980s -- in all its hair-crimped, puffy-sleeved, "Glamour Shots" and digital-watches anti-glory. And while every scene of the film is thick with atmospheric minutiae and ironic wit, director Jared Hess (who co-wrote with his wife Jerusha) makes a more fundamental slip in the last act, when "Napoleon Dynamite" veers clumsily toward an unfortunately conventional, gift-wrapped ending of geek triumph that is out of character for the nerdy honesty of the film.
Even so, Napoleon stays true to himself in all his clueless, unjustified superciliousness -- and thus the uncomfortable laughs keep coming. Unless you ran with the cool crowd in high school, I can all but guarantee this film will make you smile.
Run time: 96 mins
In Theaters: Friday 27th August 2004
Box Office USA: $44.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $46.1M
Budget: $400 thousand
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Production compaines: Access Films, Napoleon Pictures Limited, Carnival Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 71%
Fresh: 120 Rotten: 49
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: Jared Hess
Starring: Jon Heder as Napoleon Dynamite, Aaron Ruell as Kip Dynamite, Jon Gries as Uncle Rico, Efren Ramirez as Pedro Sanchez, Shondrella Avery as LaFawnduh, Haylie Duff as Summer, Tina Majorino as Deb, Diedrich Bader as Rex, Sandy Martin as Grandma, Trevor Snarr as Don, Emily Dunn as Trisha, Ellen Dubin as Ilene
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