"Napoleon Dynamite," which premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival to much fanfare, is a quirky, one-of-a-kind comedic gem. With echoes in tone to Wes Anderson's "Rushmore
," in style to Todd Solondz's "Welcome to the Dollhouse," and in feel to such adult-minded animated television shows as "Daria" and "The Simpsons," writer-director Jared Hess and cowriter Jerusha Hess have paid tribute to such influential filmmakers and genres without feeling the need to copy them. In telling the story of a group of lovable misfits at the bottom rung of the social ladder who somehow find a way to overcome their woes and keep marching forward, "Napoleon Dynamite" is one of the more consistently charming and original motion pictures of the last few months. And even when you aren't laughing out loud at the characters' antics and Hess' droll humor, you won't be able to stop from smiling.
In the rural, desperately uneventful midwest town of Preston, Idaho, 17-year-old Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder) stands out in a crowd. Equipped with a full head of bushy red hair, almost always clad in snow boots, and with an eternal blank stare, Napoleon trudges through the doldrums of his dysfunctional home life and miserable high school experience as if he has long since accepted his lowly existence and has learned to remain indifferent to anything that comes his way. When Grandma (Sandy Martin) is injured in a sand bike accident, smarmy Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) is sent to stay with Napoleon and his unemployed, chat room-obsessed 32-year-old brother, Kip (Aaron Ruell), until she gets out of the hospital. As Kip teams with Uncle Rico on a corny get-rich-quick scheme and Uncle Rico begins to spread negative rumors around about Napoleon to better himself, Napoleon finds an unexpected ally in new-kid-in-school Pedro (Efren Ramirez). When Pedro decides to run for class president against the popular, snobbish Summer Wheatley (Haylie Duff), he and Napoleon begin a seemingly hopeless campaign. Meanwhile, Napoleon befriends the shy Deb (Tina Majorino), a cute wallflower who might just be his perfect match.
"Napoleon Dynamite" is light on a driving narrative, but hugely likable, nonetheless, as it follows its affectionate, offbeat characters through a few months in their shoes. Certain plot threads that threaten to come off as cliches, such as the budding relationship between Napoleon and Deb or the high school campaign for president, bypass where one would naturally expect them to lead and feel brand-new because of it. Most appreciably of all, director Jared Hess (a 24-year-old making his promising feature debut) refuses to talk down to his audience by spelling out every story development. He trusts that viewers are more quick-witted than most films treat them (he would be right), and so he spares us the more commonplace scenes that go along with comedies about teenagers. For example, when Napoleon and Deb end up dancing together at the school dance, their conversation is awkward, but warm, leading to a silent reciprocal respect for each other that transcends any dialogue Hess could have cooked up. And the scene, for once, doesn't end in a kiss. Later, when Deb gets mad at Napoleon over a misunderstanding, Hess drops the usual, tired apology and make-up sequence for something that is far more quiet and honest.
More than anything, "Napoleon Dynamite" is a study in transcendent simplicity. There are a lot of broad laughs, much of which comes from Napoleon's outrageous behavior in certain circumstances, and some that are more subtle, whether it be a zinger of a one-liner or a joke that is carefully set up early on and paid off later. The portrayal of Grandma's bike accident; the funky dance Napoleon learns (from a tape called "D-Kwon's Dance Moves") that he puts to use during Pedro's election; and the gift Kip's black Internet girlfriend, LaFawnduh (Shondrella Avery), gives him are just a few of the comic highlights in a movie that has countless others. No matter. All of the comedy is successfully carried off without any winks to the audience, and the characters have no idea that they are even in a comedy. That the movie is so very funny and never unveils that it knows it is the biggest key to great comedy. The second anyone shows that they know they are funny is the second the spell is lifted and it stops making one laugh. Fortunately, this never happens here.
As the outlandish title character, Jon Heder (making his major film debut) superbly carries the film without ever seeming to try. Napoleon walks through most of the film with a facial expression that resembles a fog. Maybe he has been treated badly by his peers for so long that he is worn out. Maybe he is unsure of whether or not to trust new friends Pedro and Deb at the onset because he is afraid of getting hurt. Or maybe it is the exact opposite, and he no longer is affected by rejection, which is why he willingly hangs out with them. As kindred spirit Deb, Tina Majorino is easily the standout. Once a wonderful child actor in such films as 1994's "When a Man Loves a Woman," 1994's 'Corrina, Corrina," and 1995's 'Waterworld," Majorino returns after a five year absence (her last project was 1999's television miniseries of 'Alice in Wonderland") all grown up and proving that maturity has only strengthened her abilities as an actress. Majorino is, at once, adorable and deeply touching, nearly the female equivalent of Heder's Napoleon. She makes her every moment on screen come alive.
"Napoleon Dynamite" is that rare motion picture that reminds you of a lot of other films while, at the same time, being unlike any other movie you have ever seen. Director Jared Hess makes it his own, both through the unpredictably trajectory of the subplots and the innovation with which he creates his ensemble. He also invigorates things with peculiar, winning aesthetics; many of the fashions are right out of the '70s, most of the nostalgic music selections (such as "The Promise" by When in Rome and "Time After Time" by Cyndi Lauper) are from the '80s, and the technology (the Internet, for example) is strictly of a present-day mentality. It is as if this nowhere town in Idaho has been stuck in a number of time warps, creating some weird sort of meshing of random decades. Most important, director Hess never seems to be laughing at his characters. Even when it starts to seem like it, Hess is quick to confirm at every turn that he really adores them, there is no question. By the time the lovely, lyrical final scene of "Napoleon Dynamite" arrives, you have no choice but to nod in acknowledgment. Finally, and once and for all, it is crystal clear why these characters deserve to be loved.