Starring: Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, Jon Gries
By pushing for a new kind of cinematic effect, just for fun let's call
it comedic irony, filmmaker Jared Hess lobbies for his place
in film history. But it's apparent early on in Napoleon Dynamite
that Hess hasn't the means to create said effect (fitting characters
and scenarios; actual comedy), and that his titular hero, fittingly underplayed by
the noble Jon Heder, is nothing more than a marketing department's
dream, customized to resonate with unexceptional teens who think
Alexander Payne is a guy who signed the Constitution.
It's a perceivable scenario, as the 90s indie boom would eventually give way to next-wave writer-directors who, with the idea of an acceptance letter from Sundance in mind, would tap into their slacker anomalies, raise some cash, and starting shooting in their hometown. Breathlessly awaiting the results are major studio offshoots like Fox Searchlight, who troll film festivals worldwide, looking for hip, inexpensive films from which they can profit. Kids, marketing types call this a synergy, and that's essentially the story behind Napoleon Dynamite, one of the Buzz Films™ at Sundance 2004, which eventually scored a $3 million dollar distribution deal with Fox Searchlight. Its tale of creation is a work of nonfiction that, to me at least, was more compelling than what happened to transpire on-screen.
Rooting through his memories, Hess used his younger brothers and assorted classmates to script Napoleon Dynamite's geeks, jocks, teen queens, and otherwise. And he, along with his wife, Jerusha, created a dogpile of run-ins between Napoleon, an unsocialized high school senior, and assorted residents of Preston, Idaho to serve as the plot. Living with his Grandma (Sandy Martin) and older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) in 80s style comfort, Napoleon's eccentric behavior makes him the focus of people's curiosity and, in some cases, contempt. Maybe it's his moon boots or pet llama. His fantasy drawings sure are curious. Perhaps it is the way he stuffs tater tots in his pants pocket, only to eat them later during class. No one can quite figure Napoleon out, including his opportunistic Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), who is tasked with looking after both boys when Grandma takes a spill on a dirtbike. Regardless, it's through such evocative queuing that we're supposed to laugh. Only the laughs never come, unless you're one of the aforementioned teens, or an adult whose job it is to assess what the younger generation might find amusing.
Wisely constructing a hint of a linear storyline, Napoleon comes to form a nerd alliance with Deb (Tina Majorino) and Pedro (Efren Ramirez) to block mean girl Summer (Haylie Duff) from becoming senior class president. It's the only momentum the film catches, and it's crafted to feel incidental in Napoleon's life, yet revelatory for those around him. Such subtlety requires talent (and, in most cases, experience) to work, but it's not that Hess didn't surround himself with the right people; he just loved his idea too much and protected it from reverberating with the audience.
At best it's an average experience for those in attendance, and nothing more. It's PG-sweet and entirely forgettable. Picture Richard Linklater but a little less, you know, wordy. Or Todd Solondz with all the fun and poison sucked out.