As any child of the 1980s knows, “nerds” come in many flavors. There are the shy nerds. Even if you took it upon yourself to pry these wallflowers from their hiding place, you wouldn’t get much of a response. Then there are the relatively outgoing nerds. Those folks may not talk much to the popular kids, but within the nerd society, they are the big shots and hardly stop to catch a breath as they pontificate about operating systems or anime. And, finally, as I said before, there are the nerds.
Yes, our red-headed hero carries the unlikely name “Napoleon Dynamite.” (Elvis Costello fans may recall that this was an alias that Costello used on his album “Blood and Chocolate.”) Director Jared Hess relates that he got the name from a strange man he met in Chicago, and didn’t know that most likely, this mysterious transient had copped it from Elvis. “I wish I could change it now,” Hess says. This high school student from Idaho looks through perpetually squinted eyes at a world that is a somewhat disturbing cross between the world of today and the world of the Bangles and Kool Moe Dee. Although his reclusive older brother Kip spends most of his life in those newfangled Internet chat rooms, Napoleon kicks it ’80s style with his frizzy white-boy perm, swank moon boots and those huge glasses that are staples of any embarrassing yearbook picture. And the rest of his class has a similar sense of style: Pastels dominate fashions, “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper gets cranked at the school dance, and Napoleon’s lone female friend Deb (“Waterworld”‘s Tina Majorino) has a ponytail pulled so tightly to the side that you could probably use it to swing her around the room. Napoleon is played by 26-year-old Jon Heder, who — like much of the cast — is making his feature film debut. The gangly Heder doesn’t look anything like a high school student, but it works in this instance, as towering over his peers only brings his misfit status into more vivid relief. Hess ably emphasizes his character’s isolation by using slow, wide camera shots that showcase the quiet Idaho landscape.
Anyway, the fact is that just looking at Napoleon is funny. Heder had already played the character in a short film that played at the 2003 Slamdance Festival, and in an interview, often talked about “Napoleon” as if the nebbish were right there in the room. On the surface, at least, Napoleon is either truly laid-back or borderline autistic: He can’t even be bothered to open his eyes fully or glance in someone’s direction. Napoleon lives largely in a fantasy world, in which he is one step away from gaining the skills of a ninja and where spinning tales about how he spent his summer shooting wolverines will prevent a beatdown from the jocks (it doesn’t work). But real life begins to intrude on his teenage reverie in a variety of ways. First his grandmother injures herself in a dune buggy accident, leaving Napoleon and his 32-year-old brother “alone.” This brings about the return of Uncle Rico (Jon Gries of “Real Genius”). Rico is a former high school quarterback who lives in regret that Coach didn’t put him in the big game. Now, he hawks Tupperware and “breast enhancers” with equally little sense of shame. Another interloper into Napoleon’s world is a new student, Pedro (Efren Ramirez), who is every bit his equal in underreaction and nonconformity… and who unwittingly becomes his competition for the hand of Deb. The simmering tension, however, doesn’t stop Napoleon from backing Pedro’s underdog bid for the class presidency against the prohibitive favorite, perky cheerleader Summer (Haylie Duff — yes, her sister.)
If those last couple of sentences give the impression that this is all leading up to a boilerplate “Revenge of the Nerds” resolution, well, you can rest easy. Much like its lead character, “Napoleon Dynamite” is not about to start playing by the general rules of society. Indeed, in a plot development that has no basis in the reality of any high school of which I know, the presidential election ends up being settled by a dance competition. And although we presume that lessons are indeed learned, they’re not exactly dwelled upon, as the 86-minute film makes a quick dash for the exit.
Although folks might expect more than 86 minutes for their ticket fee these days, it’s probably for the best, because “Napoleon Dynamite” is, to an extent, a one-joke film. Much like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, you will most likely recognize the lead character as the prototype of someone you’ve met yourself. It’s easy to laugh both with him and at him, as he spouts outdated slang (“Dang!” “Sweet!” “Retarded!”), and gets into surreal scrapes involving things such as a bar of Chap Stick or an unhappy llama. However, much like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, there’s not that much meat here besides the well-realized lead character and some physical humor. Uncle Rico’s desire to correct his past wrongs is drawn out at length and then put to rest via a “dick joke.” He then continues to pop in for some more moderately amusing, but ultimately random and directionless, scenes. Despite a valiant effort by Ramirez, who matches Heder blank stare for blank stare, the character of Pedro remains enigmatic. Summer and the other “popular kids” could hardly be more cliche or undeveloped. Since the film’s climax is based around a nominal showdown between Pedro and Summer, these turn out to be major flaws.
What’s designed to be the “big ending” ends up, just like the rest of the film, a gag based on physical humor and the “wackiness” of the Napoleon character. Not that that’s bad; it’s a helluva lot more than most “SNL” movies deliver, I can tell ya. Still, it’s not exactly the level of humor — along with other emotions — that Wes Anderson was able to wring out of the triumph of a deadpan teenager in “Rushmore.”
“Napoleon Dynamite” can’t really claim to be much more than a funny film. But it can make you laugh, and it can give you a character you’ll remember for quite a while. And that is, indeed, pretty sweet.Rating: B+